Warbler, the 24-year-old Willits farmer perched 70’ high in a Ponderosa pine that stands in the way of Caltrans’ Willits Bypass, has just reached her fourth week aloft, weathering rain and snow and becoming the focal point for a growing campaign to stop Caltrans’ massive highway project.
The $210 million Willits Bypass project proposes to put a four-lane freeway the size of Interstate 5 around the small town of Willits, draining major wetlands and decimating a mature oak woodland in the process. The oaks are nesting habitat for migratory birds coming through northern California. Riparian vegetation along salmon-bearing streams would be removed, and Caltrans says they will “relocate” the fish during the multi-year construction, hurting coho salmon recovery efforts. The wetland draining and fill proposal requires the largest wetlands fill permit in Northern California in the last 50 years.
Federal lead agency Army Corp of Engineers (ACE) requires no net loss of “functioning, self-sustaining” wetlands. Caltrans bought 2,000 acres of agricultural land in the valley but has no experience in wetland enhancement. Its mitigation plan is mired in discord over grazing rights. Caltrans’ claim that cattle grazing should count as wetland enhancement has been debunked by ACE studies. In an unusual alliance, the Farm Bureau has joined environmental groups in a lawsuit.
Caltrans’ rationale for the project is traffic congestion, but a traffic volumes graph based on information on Caltrans’ website shows that a four-lane project is vastly out of proportion to actual traffic volumes, which have not grown since 1996. Moreover, most congestion is caused by in-town traffic, which would not be alleviated. A citizen’s group in Willits has been working with transportation experts for years, on a practical alternative, but Caltrans has refused to consider that alternative.
Longtime Willits resident Rosamond Crowder said, “I want you to know that there is a transportation industrial complex. It is fueled by the mega-trucking industry and the highway construction industry. Caltrans is their agent. They take our tax dollars and they serve the complex. Caltrans knows very well how to play a small town and a rural county. We have been played.”
A kindergarten class from the Tree of Life Montessori School in Ukiah visited the tree sit last week, one youngster asking a Caltrans official, “Don’t you know trees have feelings too?”
Despite the cramped quarters of her 4x8 platform and constant noise of nearby highway, Warbler maintains a cheerful equanimity. “I’m staying up here until Caltrans’ drops their expensive plan to wreck the Little Lake Valley. We have a plan to solve Willits’ traffic problems that does not drain the wetlands, cut the trees or bulldoze the hillsides.” said Warbler. The tree sit began on Jan. 28.
Caltrans official Phil Frisbee stated in last Wednesday’s Willits News that the agency had “given the green light” to contractors to start construction. Activists say that important conditions of the permit required the Army Corp of Engineers, such as funding for the multi-million dollar mitigation measures, have not been met. The lack of a court injunction halting the project leaves it up to concerned citizens to protect the environment from irreparable harm.
The Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters is located at 2530 San Pablo Ave., Suite 300, North, Berkeley, CA 94702.