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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Parting the Redwood Curtain:A one-mile highway project could change an entire region

U.S. 101, the longest highway in California, starts in Los Angeles and meanders northward through Santa Barbara, San Francisco and into redwood country. For California's sparsely populated north coast -- the stretch of forests and farms and the smattering of towns that make up Humboldt and Del Norte counties -- 101 is a lifeline. It's the main artery for a region that was in economic trouble even before the Great Recession.

Just across the Humboldt County line, the highway bisects tiny Richardson Grove State Park, where it drops from four lanes to two and weaves through ancient redwood trees. The top speed is 35 miles per hour, along curves too tortuous for full-size commercial semis to navigate. The park is the one place along Highway 101 through which these trucks -- the kind that serve businesses across the United States, from mom-and-pop shops to big-box behemoths -- cannot legally travel, with a few exceptions.

Now, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) wants to improve and widen the highway. But locals are divided. Some see the restricted highway as a bottleneck obstructing economic development in a recession-racked community. To others, it's the finger in the dike forestalling a flood of development in a deliberately bucolic landscape. Both sides agree on one thing: Management of the highway through this state park has implications for development in the entire region the highway serves.

Verdant Humboldt County lies near the southern end of a temperate rainforest that once stretched from just north of San Francisco Bay to southern Alaska. The county's population density is among the lowest in California, and is concentrated around two hubs, Eureka and nearby Arcata. The woods form a largely pristine corridor from the inland hills to the rocky coast, creating a physical barrier from the more metropolitan south, and preserving the paLinkstoral atmosphere that distinguishes the region. Locals call it the "Redwood Curtain."

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