Presented by the Sierra Club Redwood Chapter Newsletter, The REDWOOD NEEDLES
The chapter's proposal (August issue of the Redwood Needles, page 3) requesting a comprehensive EIR/EIS before rehabilitating the Northwestern Pacific Railroad (NWP) north of Willits will do more harm to the Eel River than preventing it:
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), who regulates all railroads, exempts repair on existing railroads from EIRs; a rule that has been upheld in court. Therefore legal actions, demanding an EIR, will waste precious years before repairs and stabilization of the banks can begin, and meanwhile, new washouts will occur, culverts will fill up, walkways across the 23 bridges will be rotting, dropping debris into the river. An EIR, in this specific case, will only add to the degradation of the river.
After the FRA closed the NWP in 1998 north of Willits due to slides, the Federal Emergency Management Agency prohibited any work until an Environmental Assessment (EA) &endash; which is accepted by FRA regulations &endash; would be completed and held back $8 million in disaster funds. The draft EA was released last year, and the final document should be completed soon. Repairs north of Willits are expected to begin in spring of 2002, which will reopen the tracks for rail operations and stabilize the riverbanks, improving conditions for the railroad and the Eel River.
The proposal also destroys the Mendocino group's strategy (since 1989) against the Willits Freeway Bypass. Arguments that freight service and passenger trains on the NWP could (respectively) substantially reduce the numbers of trucks and individual automobiles going through Willits become moot points if we suddenly favor the abandonment of rail north of Willits.
The claim that the "destruction" of the river began with the construction of the NWP in 1914 can be refuted easily: only 18% of the 400-mile long river parallels the railroad through the controversial canyon. The first impacts occurred in the late 1800s from overgrazing in the Mendocino National Forest. In 1906, a tunnel was built to divert the water from the main fork of the Eel to the Russian River. Today, about 97% of the main fork flows into the Russian River. Logging exploded after WW II. Bulldozers invaded the forest, causing erosion on the steep, fragile slopes, carrying sediments through hundreds of small streams into the forks of the Eel. Overharvesting the forest has been much more detrimental to the river than the construction of the railroad, which was mainly done by hand and with the help of horses.
If the railroad north of Willits were shut down, we would lose an environmentally friendly mode of transportation that is ten times safer than cars, four times as fuel-efficient, less vulnerable than a highway during an earthquake, and whose even-grade route is more energy-efficient than Highway 101. Commuter rail in Sonoma and Marin would suffer because the economic viability of the whole line depends upon the freight revenue to and from Humboldt County.
I suggest revising the proposal; perhaps a survey among the membership is called for?
Johanna Burkhardt, Sierra Club member since the sixties and past transportation and conservation chair for the Mendocino/Lake Group
Response to the Letter to the Editor:
I have to disagree that reopening the railroad through the Eel River Canyon will do more good than harm to the Eel River. Last I heard, a spokesperson for the Northwestern Pacific Railroad insisted the Eel River is not a Wild and Scenic River. This is untrue. The Eel River was designated Wild and Scenic in 1982 by the United States Secretary of the Interior. If the railroad denies this fact, how can we expect railroad spokespersons to be truthful in relating other information?
The impending rebuilding and reopening of the railroad north to Eureka is for the purpose of moving freight from newly dredged Humboldt Bay Port to feed sprawl to the south. Humboldt Bay Port expansion is contingent on cheap rail transportation going south. Old mills around Humboldt Bay Port have been rebuilt into transportation centers to accept large logs from Pacific Rim countries and Wall Mart type goods from developing countries. I am concerned this means logging in old growth forests from Canada, Siberia, Indonesia and sweat shop produced trinkets.
The railroad closes regularly due to slides. When the railroad is closed, those goods will have to be moved by truck on 101. Rail closures will mean increased truck traffic on 101 from Humboldt Bay Port.
If commuter rail in Willits, Sonoma and Marin is contingent on further destruction of the Eel River Canyon and Humboldt Bay Port expansion, reopening the railroad at all must continue to be discussed.
Lynn Ryan, North Group Vice Chair