But this makes the bypass controversy sound like it's simply about conservation, which it's not. If it were, Caltrans' claim that building a freeway around town could cut carbon emissions by reducing stop-and-go traffic might hold more local weight (though Parrish reported that the construction of this mammoth project would generate 380,000 tons of CO2, "about 90 years' worth of what Caltrans claims to be saving").
No, the bypass doesn't threaten only those Mendocino dwellers with wings and gills; it will also massively upend the geography of the Little Lake Valley, which is only about two miles wide and four miles long, and not simply by drying out the wetlands northeast of Willits and aerating the inland region's namesake; not just by scraping the top off of one hill and even possibly—if parts of the EIR are enacted—exploding a second to use for fill, and not just by leveling pine and oak and ash groves.
No, because the freeway will displace all the plants and animals mentioned above, Caltrans is bound to an enormous mitigation. The state agency has seized roughly 2,000 acres of valley property so it can attempt to move and replant some of the habitats listed—much of it historical cattle ranches and farms. This means that the state agency owns nearly one-third of the valley floor, and is Little Lake's largest landowner.
In 2012, the Farm Bureau made strange bedfellows with the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Willits Environmental Center and Environmental Protection Information Center in a lawsuit against Caltrans, protesting its monolithic seizure (it accepted a settlement in early 2013). With Willits Economic Localization, a thriving Grange—a center of the California Grange revival—and dozens of generational farms, Little Lake valley is a hub of transitional, back-to-the-land philosophy and subsistence agriculture.
For a transportation agency to not only fill the valley's wetlands but to take away its food production land en masse for a freeway is beyond symbolic, and cuts deeply into regional identity. Amanda Senseman, the 24-year-old who first climbed a Ponderosa pine in January to protest under the title "Warbler" wasn't a zero-sum conservationist—she was a farmer. When I interviewed her in August, she compared the bypass to another monstrosity that has as much to do with rural land rights as it does ecology.
"This is our Keystone XL," she said.
While protesters blocked Caltrans in March, State Sen. Noreen Evans sent a letter to the state agency's director Michael Dougherty about the bypass.
"[A]s facts about the selected project become more widely known, opposition is mounting," she wrote. "It is disconcerting when, after all these years, many ranchers, farmers, local business, environmental groups and ordinary citizens agree that the Willits Bypass as it is presently conceived should not be built."
Her letter went on to question why the state transportation agency seemed to be putting fourth only two options: a four-lane bypass through the wetlands or nothing? Why not a cheaper two-lane freeway? After all, building those two extra lanes would cost another $80 million. Why not convert a surface street into a separate arterial for vehicles passing through?
Dougherty's answer was polite but firm. No other alternative was possible, he explained, due to an interlocking chain of funding and design standards. Only a six-mile, four-lane diversion would work because only it could provide uninterrupted traffic flow, not just at the project's completion, but 20 years in the future. If the project did not accomplish this, it would be considered "functionally obsolete," which was not permitted by Caltrans regulator, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).
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CROSSING OVER After covering Caltrans' offenses for months, reporter Will Parrish decided to join the battle himself.
Evans backed off, but Willits residents did not. Just as the perception of regulatory collapse was causing Parrish to move toward action, it was also driving a handful of activists toward investigation. Local engineer Richard Estabrook wondered what the vague-sounding term "functionally obsolete" meant, so he turned to Caltrans encyclopedic EIR. It referred, he found, to the highway's "Level of Service" or "LOS," a term measuring traffic flow. Flying down 101 near Cloverdale at 2am would be LOS A, while sitting stalled on 580 behind a collision for hours would be LOS F. The marker that had been decided for the bypass was LOS C.
In April, Estabrook sent a Freedom of Information Act Request to the FHWA to substantiate whether federal funding for the bypass did, in fact, rest on its Level of Service of designation. In May, he received the following reply:
"LOS is not determinative of the eligibility for projects for Federal-aid funding, given that local conditions may limit the ability of a particular project to achieve a given LOS."