Highway Blues

The spoils of a bitter war between Caltrans and Mendocino County environmental advocates—5.9 miles of oak, fir and ash trees that will be leveled and chipped to make way for the Willits bypass—have again been ceded to the contractors clearing them. But unlike redwoods that previously sat on public land in Sonoma County, these trees won’t turn a private profit.

In January, we reported that Ghilotti Construction had cut down redwoods lining Highway 101 and sold a portion to the Sonoma County Water Agency for $98,000. Because these trees were planted in Caltrans’ right-of-way, they belonged to the state, making the fact that a private construction company was able to sell them to another public agency alarming.

Spokesmen for both the county department of planning and the water agency confirmed that this was standard practice for Caltrans projects: the contractor is responsible for clearing so-called debris and can sell it if it has any value. (Ghilotti, who also donated a portion of the redwoods to Sebastopol’s Sturgeon’s Mill, did not return a call seeking comment.)

A similar transaction is taking place in Mendocino County—but without private profit. Benicia-based Flatiron Construction and Dublin-based DeSilva Gates Construction are joint bidders in the $200 million project to bulldoze trees for a four-lane extension of 101 around Willits, through what the Environmental Protection Information Center has termed “major wetlands and endangered species habitats.” Now those same embattled trees—cleared in the path of Caltrans’ right of way, on taxpayer-owned land—become the property of the contractors felling them.

“They own [the trees],” Caltrans spokesperson Phil Frisbie Jr. confirms. “They are responsible for them.”

Echoing Sonoma County officials, Frisbie explains that this is common practice. “It allows the contractor to optimize their operations,” he says, adding that bidders can lower their overall fee if they are permitted to resell valuable timber, a theoretical money-saver for the state agency.

This wasn’t part of the initial bid negotiation between Caltrans and the joint contractors in Willits, however, because unlike Ghilotti, Flatiron and DeSilva Gates won’t be selling any of the wood. Most of it will go back into the Caltrans project as bark chips around the freeway, and some will be donated to state parks and local nonprofits like the Brooktrails Fire Safe Council to be used as firewood.

Frisbie says that 80 logs will go into Mendocino creek beds to provide shade and erosion control to endangered fish as part of the project’s environmental-mitigation agreement. Approximately 200 redwood logs that once lined Santa Rosa’s north 101 corridor have a similar fate, becoming structural enhancements along Dry Creek to benefit coho and steelhead. But in Sonoma County, those felled redwoods weren’t donated; they were sold back to a public agency at fair value lumber price of roughly $490 a log, with Ghilotti Construction pocketing the profits.

“We had prior communications with some of these agencies up here,” Frisbie says of the donated logs. “We were able to make those arrangements and include them in the contract before it even went out to bid.”

So what happened in Sonoma County? Did the presence of valuable timber lower Ghilotti’s initial bid, or was that nearly $100,000 sale of property that once belonged to the humble taxpayer simply a bonus?

It’s difficult to say. The construction company, once again, did not return a call seeking comment. However, in Ghilotti’s initial project bid obtained by the Bohemian, there is no mention of the value of the redwood trees. And according to another Caltrans’ spokesperson, Jason Probst, assets that can be resold aren’t required to be itemized in the contract between Caltrans and private contractors. “Basically, it’s delineated on their side,” he says.

Meanwhile, despite Caltrans’ mitigation efforts, environmental groups in Willits claim the four-lane freeway will damage nearly 100 acres of wetlands and hurt stream and riparian habitat for endangered Chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout. With this in mind, the Willits Environmental Center’s Ellen Drell says determining the final ownership of the trees feels a little bit like “squabbling over carcasses.”

However, she does believe their removal is indicative of a larger issue, in which private contractors pave the local landscape and can line their pockets with money from the “debris.”

“These trees have been here for 150 to 300 years, and in three minutes they come crashing and crumbling to the ground,” she says of the construction. “Talk about exploitation. They’re living, breathing things contributing to coolness in the atmosphere, and then they just become goods—trash—that can be divvied up like spoils.”