Triplicate Staff

Walk the trail south toward Enderts Beach from the overlook and you'll see evidence of the old Redwood Highway built in the 1920s as close to the continent's edge as engineers could manage.

The old path is marred by many slides, a reminder that we human beings learned from our mistake and constructed a new stretch of highway farther inland in the 1930s.

A few miles to the south rises another section of U.S. Highway 101 built too close to the edge. Caltrans has spent $29 million since 1997 alone trying to prevent Last Chance Grade from sliding into the sea. In a few days the latest phase of the monumental maintenance project is scheduled to end after nearly a year. Two-lane traffic will resume until the summer of 2016, when work crews will begin another round of buffing up the bluff.

Unless part of it - or all of it - slides away sooner.

Keeping Last Chance Grade passable is expensive. But it would be far more costly to build an inland bypass, in dollars and possibly the loss of old-growth redwoods, depending on the route chosen.

Gradually, however, officials seem to be coming to grips with the most expensive proposition of all. If Last Chance Grade ultimately collapses, the economic and human costs of losing the ability to drive between northern and southern Del Norte County would be staggering.

If we wait for that to happen - and experts seem to agree it eventually will - we'd still have to build an inland bypass. Meanwhile, Klamath-area residents would be cut off from their jobs and schools in Crescent City. The vital trade and tourism that the coast highway brings to Del Norte would be snuffed out as passing-through drivers detour to Interstate 5.

A day trip to anywhere in Humboldt County? Forget about it.

Local officials want Caltrans to estimate the economic impact of such a catastrophe and figure that into the equation as it considers its long-term options. By June 2015, the agency hopes to complete a study that will include an analysis of prior studies and new information about alternatives to continuously repairing and rebuilding Last Chance Grade.

Our congressman, Democrat Jared Huffman, plans to tour the Last Chance Grade with Caltrans and local transportation officials Nov. 8, then come to Crescent City to talk about the issue.

This is good news for a couple of reasons. First, federal help is clearly needed if we're to seriously consider spending hundreds of millions of dollars on an inland bypass. Second, Huffman's support for a bypass project, if he gives it, might blunt some of the likely opposition to the project due to environmental concerns.

The prospect of removing some of Del Norte's precious remaining old-growth redwoods is not pleasant. Their preservation on state and national parklands is this region's most-unique attraction, and any impact on some of the tallest trees in the world must be minimized. But frankly, this may be one of those times when our very economic survival is at risk.

When parts of the old Redwood Highway started falling into the sea, engineers rerouted them away from the precipice. Eight decades later, we're at least as smart and resourceful as those folks, right?