Willits Action Update


July 30th

In yet another stealthy pre-dawn action, protesters against the Caltrans bypass around Willits again snuck onto the construction site, this time on the south end of the route, locking themselves to a giant bulldozer called a ripper. The machine is tearing apart a hillside and using the soil to fill in wetlands and streams to build a freeway. For the first time, press has access to the protest site, after Willits News photographer Steve Eberhard was arrested when he tried to cover a protest last week.

Two women, Kim Bancroft and Maureen Kane, have locked their hands around the equipment in welded steel tubes, which are difficult to remove and must be sawn through. A third protester, Steve Keyes, was arrested when he would not leave their side, where he was stationed with water. Temperatures have been in the nineties all week. A crowd of local citizens has gathered in support, and CHP is on scene. Bancroft explained: “Caltrans put out false information to justify a four-lane bypass. The people of Willits designed an alternative route that would not be so expensive or destructive, and it was ignored.”  The project’s cost at this point is $210 million.

“Caltrans is attempting to mitigate for the loss of wetlands on an unprecedented scale, using an untried method with no long term manager and without long term funding to sustain it”, said Ellen Drell, founding board member of the Willits Environmental Center. “They’re replacing an already functioning wetland with a speculative plan.”

Caltrans purchased one third of the entire Little Lake Valley in an effort to mitigate for this project, which will cause the largest loss of wetlands in 50 years. In a scheme that they themselves acknowledge to be experimental, Caltrans will excavate 266,000 cubic yards of wetland soils, gouging out unnatural depressions. In other areas the plan calls for stripping off existing vegetation and replacing it nursery grown plants.

“The total price tag of this mitigation travesty to the taxpayers is $54 million dollars,” said Drell.

 The Mendocino Conservation Resource District (RDC), which Caltrans assumed would take over management of the mitigation plan, has declined to accept ownership of the mitigation lands or responsibility for its management, after reviewing the mitigation plan.  Thus the plan is moving forward with no manager, leaving one-third of valley lands with Caltrans as the sole owner, and no plan for the future. While there is funding for earth moving, planting and 40 miles of fencing, there is zero funding for land management, including rotational grazing for cattle, oversight, maintenance, and flood control.

Protests over the Willits Bypass freeway have been ongoing since January when a young woman calling herself “Warbler” took up residence high in a pine tree on the route. Her tree-sit, and 5 others were ended after 2 months in a huge military-style operation by CHP swat teams. “Warbler” returned to the trees this week, this time in a rare wetland ash forest at the north end of the route. Over 30 people have been arrested, and rallies, petitions, protests and a lawsuit continue.