At the Riverwood Inn in rural Humboldt County, where a Harley- Davidson flag flaps on a light pole beneath the Stars and Stripes, the proprietor is steaming mad.
Some 15 miles south of Loreen Eliason's roadhouse, the California Department of Transportation is planning to widen a twisty stretch of Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park, home to one of the world's last old-growth redwood forests. Caltrans has assured the public the ancient giants won't be harmed, but some residents and activists are alarmed by the prospect of disturbing the trees' shallow root systems.
"I was born up here. I'm connected to those trees," said Eliason, who has joined a lawsuit to halt the road plan.
"Those uppity-ups in Sacramento. ... They absolutely can't say for certain they won't hurt the trees," she said. "I was more than glad to jump into the lawsuit."
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As civilization closes in on many of California's 278 state parks, legal and emotional battles are erupting up and down the state. With 1.3 million acres in public hands, much of it the most prized real estate in California, the state's parks increasingly find themselves poked at and even assaulted by outside pressures.
The threats are not so great for state parks in Stanislaus and surrounding counties. Columbia and Railtown are not in the major growth areas of Tuolumne County. High-speed rail would run near the northern tip of Pacheco State Park, near San Luis Reservoir, but the planners have dropped an option that would have gone through the mostly wild Henry Coe State Park, west of Newman. Caswell and Turlock Lake are not in big population growth areas.
Not so remote anymore
California originally envisioned its parks as remote havens of beauty and tranquillity, establishing the first in 1902 when the state's population was about 1.5 million. More than a century later -- plus 35 million more people -- the demands of a growing population and 21st century technology are butting up against these scenic refuges.
Pressing against park borders -- and sometimes well into them -- are power poles, cell towers, sea walls, casinos, the border fence, housing developments, wineries and road projects. Conflicts have arisen with private landowners, transportation agencies, utility companies, businesses, environmentalists, park users -- even outlaws.
Clashing visions over California state parks are nothing new. Almost since the parks' inception, public disputes have arisen over ambitious road projects, grazing plans and development proposals that some have blasted as "overdevelopment."
In recent years, legislative efforts to control development in and around state parks have met with defeat, including two bills vetoed last year by Gov. Schwarze- negger. The bills, by Democratic Sens. Christine Kehoe of San Diego and Lois Wolk of Davis, would have tightened requirements for altering state parks and given the Legislature new authority over such plans.
Kehoe said she was prompted to push back after three state parks in her San Diego district found themselves at "ground zero" for controversial infrastructure proposals.
At Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, San Diego Gas & Electric had planned to route a 150-mile, high-voltage transmission line through the park. Some 70 miles away along the coast, a toll road agency was planning to build a six-lane tollway through San Onofre State Beach.
And at Border Field State Park on the Mexican border, the Bush administration announced plans to erect a secondary border fence that would eliminate public access to a plaza known as Friendship Park.
"When we decide to put a power line or border fence or freeway through our state parks just because they're already in public hands, we are overturning all those years of investment," Kehoe said.
Ultimately, only the border fence project went through as planned, and Friendship Park overlooking the Pacific Ocean is closed. The path for the Sunrise Powerlink was rerouted away from the park, and the San Onofre toll road proposal was rejected by state and federal agencies.
Taking on Caltrans plan
A similar drama involving parks versus public infrastructure is unfolding in the state's northernmost reaches, at Richardson Grove State Park.
In June, a coalition of conservation groups and individuals filed a lawsuit in San Francisco challenging the plan by Caltrans to widen and realign a 1.1-mile stretch of Highway 101 through the park.
Caltrans maintains that the road widening is "critical to the commerce of the region," because it will allow longer trucks to travel the route. The winding stretch of two-lane road is one of the last areas in California where these longer trucks are restricted, the agency states.
Caltrans has said it will not remove any old-growth trees, some of which tower over the narrow roadway. The plan calls for removal of 54 trees, only two of which are redwoods with diameters of six and seven inches, according to a Caltrans fact sheet.
'Unacceptable risk' for trees
Kerul Dyer of the Arcata-based Environmental Protection Information Center, which joined the coalition, said the plan puts old-growth trees and endangered species at "unacceptable risk." The lawsuit contends that Caltrans violated the California Environmental Quality Act by failing to address adequately the project's potential impacts, including the cutting and paving over of the shallow network of tree roots that binds Richardson Grove.
Eliason, a fourth-generation Humboldt County resident, said she was eager to join the lawsuit. Her Riverwood Inn watering hole sits near the entrance of the "Avenue of the Giants," a 31-mile stretch of towering redwoods. Richardson Grove is just south of Riverwood Inn.
Some local residents view the highway project as an economic opportunity, but she fears the opposite.
"The trees -- that's why people are coming here. That's my cash cow," said Eliason, who bought the roadhouse in 1995. "There's no way they can say this will not harm those trees."
In the decades ahead, tensions between California parks and other "priorities" -- transportation, green energy, private development -- are likely to intensify. Over the next 40 years, the state population is expected to grow from about 39 million to more than 59 million, according to the Department of Finance.
Parks spokesman Roy Stearns said the department has identified high-speed rail as the No. 1 potential game-changer for parks statewide in coming years.
That quandary is playing out at Los Angeles State Historic Park, where a high-speed rail project proposes to tunnel under the downtown park, possibly closing it for years. Supporters of Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park also are gearing up to fight plans to run the state's high-speed rail line near the park.
"For every project that gets defeated, there's another one coming up behind it," said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation.
"Because fundamentally, California has very bad laws to protect its state parks."
This story was reported by McClatchy Newspapers' five California papers: Marjie Lundstrom and Matt Weiser at The Sacramento Bee; John Holland at The Modesto Bee; E.J. Schultz at The Fresno Bee; Jamie Oppenheim at the Merced Sun-Star; and Kathe Tanner and David Sneed at the San Luis Obispo Tribune.