Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

This one, filed in federal court, has more defendants

Environmental groups filed a second lawsuit Tuesday - this time in federal court - challenging a $26 million highway project that would allow larger shipping trucks to use U.S. highways 199 and 197, two of Del Norte County's primary routes.

The groups say the project violates federal environmental and fisheries laws by threatening endangered salmon runs, fish habitat and old-growth redwoods.

Supporters of the project say that concessions have already been made to protect natural qualities of the Smith River canyon, and with unwavering and unanimous support from Del Norte local government agencies, the hands of Caltrans are tied.

The 197/199 Safe STAA Access Project would straighten and widen seven tight spots (including replacing a narrow bridge with an awkward approach) on U.S. Highways 199 and 197, which both run adjacent to the Smith River, in order to allow the routes to be used by shipping trucks with no overall length limit. Currently trucks using those routes cannot be longer than 65 feet.

The environmental groups (Friends of Del Norte, Arcata-based Environmental Protection Center, and the Center for Biological Diversity) also filed a 15-page state lawsuit in May attempting to block the project on the grounds that Caltrans did not fulfill the environmental analysis requirements under state law.

The 83-page lawsuit filed this week in federal court lists the National Marine Fisheries Service as a defendant in addition to Caltrans and says the defendants violated several federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act, the Magnuson-Stevens Act (the primary law guiding marine fisheries management in the U.S.), the National Environmental Policy Act and the Department of Transportation Act.

"This is a case of a road versus a river," reads the first sentence of the environmental groups' complaint.

In May, Caltrans project manager Kevin Church said that a number of concessions had already been made to protect the natural and scenic quality of the Smith River canyon.

"We want to provide what we need to provide while minimizing environmental impacts so that we don't change the character of that corridor," Church told the Triplicate then.

"Caltrans would have us believe allowing oversize trucks to drive faster through the tight Smith River canyon will make this scenic highway safer, yet it will do the opposite," said Don Gillespie, of Friends of Del Norte in a statement. "We are challenging this project to protect motorist safety and defend our treasured Smith River."

Caltrans policy is to not comment on pending litigation, but spokesman Scott Burger did say it is confident that the environmental assessment for the project was "complete and accurate."

"Great care was taken in the development of this project to provide industry-standard STAA truck access while improving safety for all users. Providing good stewardship of California's natural resources is one of our most important goals," Burger said in an email to the Triplicate. "This project successfully provides a balanced approach that improves safety and minimizes environmental impacts, while improving efficient goods movement through this area of Del Norte County."

The environmental groups' lawsuit claims that the National Marine Fisheries Service and Caltrans did not meet the "heightened level of care" that is required by the Smith River's designation as a National Recreation Area, "essential fish habitat" for salmon, and critical habitat for threatened coho salmon, when assessing the impacts of the project.

The lawsuit also essentially alleges that the NMFS rubber-stamped the project without fulfilling its role to uphold the Endangered Species Act.

Although Caltrans found that the project was likely to adversely affect critical habitat for coho salmon, the NMFS did not prepare a biological opinion, the lawsuit states.

It is NMFS policy to not comment on pending litigation, according to NMFS southwest region spokesman Jim Milbury.

"The Smith River is one of California's natural wonders and the last major undammed river in California," said Gary Graham Hughes, executive director of EPIC, in a statement. "At a time when our river systems are under incredible stress, the Smith River is an oasis for humans and fish alike. The river corridor and coho spawning grounds deserve full protection from unnecessary and destructive highway development."

Reach Adam Spencer at