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Judge Says US Law Doesn’t Protect 3,000-Year-Old Trees

While many may consider the ancient redwood trees of California a natural wonder, in the eyes of U.S. law they are afforded no special privilege or ‘natural wonder’ status.

To environmentalists’ dismay, U.S. District Judge William Alsup told a group of conservationists Nov. 28 in San Francisco that U.S. law does not protect 2,000-year-old trees. He said federal law makes it okay to cut down ancient trees in order to construct highways as long as the state fully understands the consequences of felling the trees.

“It might be hard to swallow, but they could actually cut down an old growth tree that’s been here for 2,000 years for a highway as long as they consider the consequences of that action,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup told the activists.

The judge made the assertion to conservationists who opposed building a highway through an ancient forest of redwood trees in Northern California.

Judge Alsup made the point while hearing a lawsuit over the state’s decision to widen a 1.1-mile stretch of Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park in Humboldt County. Alsup heard from the plaintiffs who allege the state did not allow the public to contribute enough to the decision to widen the road, and from the state which clams it fully assessed the environmental effects of cutting ancient trees that were up to 3,000 years old.

Environmentalists Say State Is Working on a Faulty Analysis for the Project

The $21 million road project will make it easier for large trucks to transport goods through the state. As Courthouse News reported, before now, large trucks carrying goods detoured from San Francisco to Eureka on a 446-mile journey and sometimes with a police escort since the highway is very slim. The detour shortened to 227 miles when another highway opened for large trucks, still a long journey.

The state assures conservationists that no redwood tree will be cut or harmed during the road-widening project. But environmentalists disagree, saying excavation work and newly laid pavement could damage roots of ancient trees. These environmentalists already filed a lawsuit against the government to stop the project, insisting the state is proceeding on flawed studies.

Stuart Gross, representing the environmentalists, told the court the state is about to embark on the project using two faulty data sets that described the impact of mechanized work, excavation, soil filling and construction materials on roots of trees. The attorney said it is best to have a single document that fully examines what is going to happen to trees in the event of construction work.

State Says a Trivial Error Should Not Invalidate the Need for the Project

But Stacy Lau, attorney for Caltrans, responded that Gross was referring to an outdated document that overlooked the conservationists’ points. She said the “trivial error” is not enough to invalidate the entire document. Then, Gross raised issues on whether the state gave the public enough opportunity to contribute to the revised project analysis.

The Richardson Grove State Park was established in 1922 and is home to ancient redwood trees. Many of these trees are 2,000 to 3,000 years old and are 300 feet high and up to 18 feet in diameter. While many may consider the trees a natural wonder, in the eyes of U.S. law they are afforded no special privilege or ‘natural wonder’ status.

One activist responded, “The law doesn’t protect large trucks either. Why can’t they go a little more slowly in smaller trucks?”



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