LeBaron: Redwood Highway's rich, winding backstory

  • The first 'motor bus' to cruise up the new Redwood Highway in the 1920s stopped off in Santa Rosa so the Redwood Empire Association dignitaries could have their picture taken with Luther Burbank (fifth from right).

The construction of Highway 101 north from Sonoma County began before 1920. There are motorists who travel it today who would suggest that 90 years later, it isn’t really finished.

We’re talking here about the Willits bypass, which has been a front-page story, off-and-on, for the past two years as a pyramid of protests have attempted to stop it.

Plans for that bypass have been in the state highway department’s to-do book for decades. If it had been built 50 years ago, when the original highway was improved, we’d be sailing right by the old cowboy-and-timber-town as fast as we pass Cloverdale, the previous bottleneck that made motorists grumpy.

But the road damage done by the devastating Eel River floods of the ’50s and ’60s made the highway through Humboldt County a priority instead.

So today Willits has the distinction of having the last stoplights on 101 between San Francisco and Eureka — unless you count the temporaries for the never-ending construction on that weather-impacted route. Traffic crawls through the heart of town. Ask any trucker.

IT HAS BEEN stop-and-go as well on the construction project. Since work began in January 2013, protesters who have deemed the bypass unnecessary, ugly and a danger to the surrounding wetlands, have tallied several dozen arrests.

In addition to tree sitters in the native trees, at least one bypass naysayer occupied a 100-foot construction tower for more than a week, tended by an Earth First supply line.

Other work stoppages have been caused by the concerns of the area’s Pomo leaders about drains damaging Native American cultural sites.

Earlier this month, the Army Corps of Engineers suspended the wetlands permit for several days. At last report, the permit had been reissued and work was once again underway.

I don’t know why anyone would be surprised. Wetlands and Indian lore and trees are surefire stoppers for any public project nowadays.

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