Will Parrish: The Insanity Of The Willits Bypass…


As with so many places in the American West that have been struck by the flash-flood of capitalist development since the mid-19th century, that which is most absent from the contemporary landscape of Little Lake Valley — aka the Willits Valley — is encapsulated by its name. It is a valley that once teemed with wetlands, marshy areas that formed when the area’s once-lively streams overflowed their banks and scoured the surrounding meadows with moisture and nutrients. The Central Pomo people knew the area by the evocatively intimate name Mto’m-kai, which closely translates to “Valley of Water Splashing the Toes.”

As Willits’ settlers set about gridding the land and marketing it to cattle ranchers and timber merchants, they rapidly removed the wetlands. They did the same to the Pomo villagers and wildlife — waterfowl, pelicans, vast herds of tule elk and antelope, etc. — that had dwelled among the marshes and springs for so long. The early Euroamerican pioneers incised streambeds, redirected creeks, constructed artificial drainage ditches, and ripped apart the hardpan layers of topsoil that contained the water, allowing it to seep slowly into the ground.

Some of the moisture that time had stored on the land remains, though, most notably within the marshy area on the north end of the valley, extending across Route 101 on the west and Reynolds Highway on the east. The area acts as a collection point for three creeks that flow through the valley. It is then drained by Outlet Creek, a mighty 130-mile tributary of the Eel River. Among its other contributions to what might be called the “real world” of inland Mendocino County, Outlet Creek provides the longest remaining run for the endangered Coho salmon of any river tributary in California.

Given present political alignments here on the North Coast and in California, perhaps the only feasible way that a developer might deal a death blow to this last, crucial wetland area would be to construct a freeway through it. That’s exactly what the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans), with instrumental backing from regional political officials and developers, is gearing up to do.

In case you haven’t yet tuned in until now, Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration have been pursuing a freeway bypass on Highway 101 around Willits for several decades, supposedly to ease traffic congestion along Main St. Though the agencies formulated this $210 million project years ago, its funding is courtesy of California Proposition 1B, which passed in 2006. This funding was on the verge of drying up following the 2008 economic meltdown, until regional political officials, including Rep. Mike Thompson, cashed in various among their political chips to get it back on track.

Notably, the Building Trade Unions — major backers of the Willits Bypass — are collectively Thompson’s fourth largest career donor. Only the alcohol industry, the health care industry, and the finance/insurance/real estate (FIRE) sector have been more generous in bestowing largesse on the veritably self-identified Congressman Wine Guy, according to the way the Center for Public Integrity classifies such things.

Construction of the Interstate 5-sized superhighway, beginning with its southern interchange near Walker Rd., might commence almost any day. Nearby industrial yards have begun busting with CalTrans surveying and construction vehicles. White and yellow stakes have sprung up intermittently through the Willits Valley, placed there by CalTrans personnel; the white stakes mark where the center of the highway would be, while yellow ones demarcate the edges of where the huge road would be.

Word is that CalTrans may attempt to begin construction prior to February 1st, after which the provisions of the federal Migratory Bird Act would make it even more illegal than it already is for the agency to move forward before October 15th. The act forbids cutting of trees that provide habitat for certain bird species between those dates.

While the Bypass project is widely known, the scale of destruction it would wreak upon Willits’ ecosystems is not yet widely known. For starters, CalTrans’ permit to fill in the Little Lake marsh is the largest it has received in California’s northern half in more than 50 years.

The last time CalTrans filled in a wetland area as large as this was during the freeway construction craze of the 1950s and 1960s, when such measures as the Eisenhower’s administration’s federal insterstate highway project — which was motivated to a considerable extent by a desire to make rapid military transport across the country more feasible — rendered the people of the country almost wholly dependent on automobility for transportation and to generate their livelihoods. Among the consequences have been far more rapid climate change and the suburbanization of American life.

Walking and driving through the areas that would be impacted by the Willits Bypass, and thus sensually experiencing the extent of what this project would destroy, I recalled philosopher Louis Mumford’s critique of that freeway construction binge of yesteryear, which he recorded in his book The Highway and the City: “In many parts of the country, the building of a highway has about the same result upon vegetation and human structures as the passage of a tornado or the blast of an atom bomb.”

The Willits Bypass would snake through the Little Lake Valley in a broad six-mile band, devouring not only wetlands, but oak forests, meadows, native plants, native bunchgrasses, Ponderosa pines groves, Oregon ash groves, habitat for northern spotted owls, habitat for coho salmon, habitat for steelhead trout, habitat for Tidewater Goby, habitat for Western pond turtles, habitat for Peregrine Falcons, habitat for Yellow Warblers, habitat for Point Arena Mountain Beavers, habitat for Red Tree Voles, habitat for California red-legged frogs, habitat for foothill yellow-legged frogs, habitat for Western snowy plovers, habitat for pale big-eared bats, and prime farmland.

To convert the habitat of the Willits Valley to make it unsuitable for the aforementioned species, but instead suitable for 18-wheelers bouncing and careening through the valley at highway speeds, will require a striking feat of engineering. CalTrans intends to scrape between 1.8 and 2.4 million cubic meters of topsoil off of Oil Well Hill, just north of Willits, along with other hilly areas in the vicinity of the project. CalTrans would orchestrate these excavations to the tune of more than 200 dump truck trips delivering gravel, soil, and asphalt in Willits every day for roughly two years.

The National Climatic Data Center released a report last week announcing that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the United States by a full degree Celsius. As I write this, Australia is being consumed by wildfire. The country has invented a new color coding system to account for the new regularity of weather in the 122 to 129 degree range.

Yet, as global warming is wreaking havoc across the globe, public agencies like CalTrans remain fixed in business-as-usual mode. Although CalTrans claims the Bypass will prevent carbon dioxide emissions by reducing stop-and-go traffic, the construction process alone would generate 380,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions — about 90 years’ worth of what CalTrans claims to be saving. Meanwhile, people in the region will be made further dependent on automobility.

Federal and state regulations require that construction projects ensure “no net loss” of wetlands, a vital part of the ecosystem that filter pollutants and provide habitat for endangered species. Destroy an acre of wetlands one place, and you have to create another acre somewhere else — preferably in the same watershed. Of course, it is impossible to replace wetlands once they are lost, which is why the area encompassed by the modern state of California, which once had five million acres of wetlands, is now down to roughly 370,000.

CalTrans officials have had a bug to build the bypass for decades, with one of their main justifications being that it would eliminate the only stoplights remaining on Highway 101 between San Francisco and Eureka. Among the indications that the agency’s speed addiction is unhealthy is that it is clinging to the idea in spite of its obvious insanity that is clear to those who have given it sober observation.

For example, Mark Scaramella raised this practical objection in this publication earlier this year, concerning the plan to build on Willits’ northern marshland: “If I’m reading this correctly, Caltrans is proposing to construct an elevated highway several miles long which will be carried above ground level to avoid flooding by being constructed on pilings placed in fine sediment.

“A prediction: When [the construction company contracting with CalTrans] discover how unstable the area is, the project will have to be put on hold while Caltrans tries to decide what to do. Cost and schedule estimates will increase dramatically. There won’t be enough money to finish the project. And Willits will be left out in the cold, having suffered through a big part of the Bypass impact (construction vehicles, increased traffic, dust, noise, etc.) with nothing but a partially built and useless Bypass project that nobody will know how to finish to show for it.”

As I toured the ecological bootprint of the project last month, the group I accompanied drove to a mountain overlook above the Bypass project area. Though we were looking down on an area that once teemed with life — Tule elk, migratory birds, and all the rest — a stillness hung over the valley. The area is platted with a grid of cattle ranches that extend all out to the Little Lake basin area, which made the land seem broodingly empty, if not yet entirely converted into lifelessness.

Many cattle ranchers are upset with the Bypass project, too. The strongly conservative California Farm Bureau sued CalTrans over the loss of farmland the project would impose, particularly as the agency haphazardly seeks to re-create wetlands on erstwhile cattle ranches.

If CalTrans gets the project off the ground (which it will, unless they are stopped by people who care about the fate of the land in the area), the area will bustle with activity. The project would temporarily create 2,900 jobs (at least, according to CalTrans’ projections). According to the project’s Environmental Impact Review, it will take five years to dewater, fill in, and piledrive the Little Lake marsh area to make it suitable for the 30-foot-high concrete viaduct structure it is constructing above the area.

The dewatering will come courtesy of so-called “wick drains”: 85-foot long metal polls that CalTrans’ contractors will drill into the ground at five foot intervals, being that they are specially engineered to suck moisture out of the ground.

After the project is done, the temporary construction workers will move on. The area will be dried up. Plants near the project area — even those that won’t be touched by the bulldozers and dump trucks — would no longer be able to reach the water with their roots. Among the plants that would be destroyed is semaphore grass, a native perennial herb that once grew abundantly throughout the state, including here in the North Coast, but which is now on the brink of extinction. One of the last remaining patches of this charismatic plant grows beneath a Valley Oak grove in the Little Lake bog. It is one of the plants that perhaps best symbolizes the conversion of wetlands in California with which it is historically associated.

Any day now, this ecosystem could be suddenly ripped apart by the Willits Bypass. The brooding stillness that attends the scene beyond the marshland would be displaced by bouncing, vibrating trucks and cars roaring across the valley, the stillness of the area joining the absence of so many other things that once lived here.

And all for what, and whose, benefit? The project will not even alleviate any of Willits’ supposed traffic congestion problem. Yet, much of what has defined this land since time immemorial, including the last of its original wetlands, will be gone forever.

A series of tours of the ecological footprint, similar to the one I participated in, are taking place this winter, sponsored by the Mendo Free Skool project. Call 216-5549 for more information.


“The project will not even alleviate any of Willits’ supposed traffic congestion problem.”

This is a well written and informative article but I am at a loss to understand the logic in the above statement. What about the Willits real traffic congestion problem that I hear so much talk about versus the “supposed traffic congestion problem”?

    I was born here and have lived in Willits/Brooktrails for 51 years, with an 11 year upper education gap after high school. Willits traffic congestion is minor compared to many other places I have lived. There are already existing streets that locals take during major events and peak traffic times that could be improved at a fraction of the cost that would be spent on the CalTrans bypass of Willits. Yes, there is congestion, but the bypass will not relieve it. CalTrans numbers actually prove this but they chose/choose to ignore them.

I have a few points I would like to clarify:

Caltrans can legally begin construction as soon as clearance letters are received from the various permitting agencies. This will happen any day, and construction should begin in February.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act says that between certain dates you can freely remove trees, but outside those dates each tree must be inspected for nests before you remove them.

Dewatering will not occur using 85′ long pipes drilled into the soil; just the areas excavated to install piers will be dewatered in order to pour concrete. The author may be confusing the long metal pilings which will be driven into the soil which will support the concrete piers.

The bypass will eventually be four lanes, just like around Ukiah to the south, and like most of 101 between Willits and the Oregon border.


Phil Frisbie, Jr.
Caltrans Public Information Officer

I have a question for the Public Information Officer:

Exactly who decides what information is considered “public” information? Other information that I have received, as a member of the “public” and local community, describes, in much detail, the area that will be impacted by what are called “wick drains”.

The impacted area is from 20 to 30 acres. It starts at Mill creek where the viaduct ends and goes all the way to the forest of alders north of the northern interchange. It is as wide as the fill at the southern interchange (where all the trees will be topped within these “certain dates” you mention in regard to the MBTA), widens somewhat at the overpass and narrows down again at the forest.

As I understand it, these drains are essential in “dewatering” our seasonal wetlands (hence the name Little Lake Valley) in order to fill it with dirt and pave it with a highway.


I just received some details about the wickdrains. They are indeed hollow tubes inserted deep into the soil. However, there is no pumping; they simply allow the weight of the soil to squeeze out excess water which allows the soil to settle faster. This does not change the groundwater level.

Here is a link to more details at the subcontractor’s website: http://www.hbwickdrains.com/WhatWeDo/WickDrains/default.aspx


Phil Frisbie, Jr.
Caltrans Public Information Officer

    If there is truly a problem, the people of Willits ought to asked to brain storm some solutions in a series of town hall meetings and polls. Seems to me somebody in this current idea just wants to make money, they will leave town and not have to suffer the consequences of this gross mistake.

    Phil, Thank you for the clarifications but they really don’t speak to the point of the unnecessary impacts to the Little Lake Valley. This is the wrong project for the area. Internal alternate routes are what we need. At a public information forum sponsored by CalTrans I spoke with a female landscape architect standing next to the artist conception of the overpass on on East Commercial Street. Rising 30 feet above the valley floor was the freeway, a monstrous construction, extremely unpleasing to the eye and glaringly out of place with the adjacent soccer fields, rodeo grounds, skate park and now the dog park. It was truly hideous beyond what my imagination could have visualized. I asked the young lady what would be done to mitigate this obvious eyesore. She had no answer, because there was none.

    Phil, thanks for providing additional information on the Wick Drains.

    I’m confused about how this would not change the groundwater level if the soil would be compacted, thus reducing the area in which water may be held? I’m very concerned about this part of the process in what it would do to the water holding capacity of the area, effecting both storage and flooding, and the ecology of the wetlands all together. Who is the hydrologist working on the project so we can have these questions answered?

What the heck kinda craziness is this??? Putting aside all the destruction this will cause, I’ve always found downtown Willits unique, I just love it just like it is. Why fix something not broken? And it is not broken….it it perfectly lovely….leave it alone! If there’s the problem of just too much money laying about with nothing to do with it….feed the children….1 in 3 goes to school hungry ( or similar stats) Just stop it!!! Stop! Stop! Stop! If you don’t like the idea of feeding the children I’m sure there is a positive solution to spending your $ without threatening the earth and ruining the town of Willits!

Thanks to Will for covering this issue on this blog and at the AVA, it is important to keep getting a critique of this boondoggle project in front of the public. Cheers to Warbler for her courage and dedication, thank you!

Dear friends,

You are cordially invited to join a sun-down vigil at Liberty Ponderosa (mile marker 43.74 from Highway 101 south) tonight at 5:30 p.m. Besides being a chance to gather in a group showing support for the tree sit, this is an opportunity to receive updates on the larger political situation as well as new information on how to support the campaign to stop the Bypass.

This vigil is taking place immediately after the debut performance of The Warblers, a new choral group based in Willits, at 4:30.

Warbler Support Group

I very much appreciate this dialogue and hearing from both sides. I’ve been to many meetings over the years, but there usually isn’t time to ask questions and get them answered. Thanks Phil for being part of the dialogue. I have a question for Phil or anyone who can answer it for me. I’m re-reading the Baechtel Road-Railroad Avenue Corridor Community Design Study written in 2003 that had wide-spread community input and was funded by CalTrans. There seemed to be good reasons to use this route as an alternative to Main Street. Why wasn’t it chosen as the best alternative rather than the present route through the valley?

Jed, is there a way you could post the study you’re referencing? Thank you for bringing up the alternatives to the proposed bypass project, this will help lead the discussion to a better decision for the community I do hope!

    I have a copy of the study. I’ll try and find a digital copy so I can post it. In the mean time anyone can stop in at the Willits City hall and go upstairs to the City Planners office and request a copy.

Great great article. A fantastic primer for anyone concerned. A couple weeks ago during the weekly protest about this Guinness-Level Boondoggle, another alternative route presented itself. Maybe save about $300 Million Dollars, maybe.