A Wild River in Peril? 

Environmentalists contend that the Smith River, California's last remaining undammed river, is threatened by a Caltrans proposal to widen two highways along its banks.

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The Smith River is the last remaining major river in California that's still wild: It's never been dammed, so it flows freely and majestically to the Pacific Ocean. Near the Oregon border, the river also runs through one of the state's most beautiful parks — Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, which includes a stand of towering old-growth redwoods. But some environmental groups and local residents contend that the river, the wild salmon that spawn in it, and some of the redwoods that grow along its banks are being threatened by a plan by the California Department of Transportation to widen sections of two state highways in the area. Last week, opponents of the plan filed an environmental suit to block the proposal.

Caltrans plans to spend $26 million to widen portions of Highways 197 and 199 in the Smith River Canyon so that the roads can accommodate large big rigs traveling to and from the North Coast and Southern Oregon. The suit, filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of Del Norte, and the Environmental Protection Information Center, argues that Caltrans' proposal fails to properly account for the environmental impacts it will have on the area.

The groups and some local residents are especially concerned that Highway 199, in particular, contains too many tight turns for large trucks to handle — even if the widening project goes through. They fear that big rigs will swerve off the two-lane road, overturn, and dump their loads in the river. "If you go off that road in that canyon and you overturn your truck, your cargo is going in the river," said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate for the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity.

The suit also contends that Caltrans has failed to adequately analyze the cumulative impacts to giant old-growth forests and rivers on the North Coast from this project and another one proposed to the south on US Highway 101 in Richardson Grove State Park. That widening project also is to be built to accommodate oversize big rigs, would cut through an old-growth redwood forest, and could threaten the nearby Eel River. The Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups previously sued Caltrans over that project, and the case is still in the courts.

In an interview, Caltrans spokesman Scott Burger declined to discuss the specifics of the new suit involving the 197/199 widening project, saying the agency had not yet been served with legal papers (he added that he also would not be able comment on it even if Caltrans had been served because of the agency's rules about not discussing pending litigation).

Many local business groups and politicians in Crescent City and throughout Del Norte (pronounced Nort) County support the 197/199 widening project because they believe that allowing larger trucks on those roads will boost the area's economy by allowing corporations to ship goods to and from the region more easily.

Some local residents, however, contend that the region's tourism economy, which is substantial, could be devastated if a tanker truck were to crash and dump its load in the Smith. The river also provides much of the area's drinking water.

As a result, safety is their biggest concern. Don Gillespie of Friends of Del Norte noted that Caltrans only plans to widen a few sections of Highway 199, and that there are other tight curves on the road that will still be difficult for big rigs to navigate. "The rest of that highway is particularly dangerous to drive," he said.

But Caltrans project manager Kevin Church said in an interview that the agency analyzed those other sections of 199 and decided that it only needs to widen the ones that are truly unsafe. "We took the pinch points — the tightest curves — and focused on those pinch points," he said.

Under the Caltrans proposal, big rigs also would be directed away from the narrowest section of 199 — where it cuts directly through Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park — onto the newly widened Highway 197, which would serve as a truck route to and from the coast.

But some locals contend that many big-rig drivers will ignore the posted signs and attempt to take 199 anyway, because it's a much more direct route to Crescent City, the largest city in the area. And then they'll crash their trucks in the park, because the road has too many hairpin turns. Gillespie said that two large trucks in recent weeks crashed on that section of 199, and noted that the widening project, once it's done, will attract far more big rigs to the area. "There's going to be a lot of trucks going through that park," he said of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

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