From Jeff Miller, Alameda Creek Alliance, 2/28/2011
Niles, CA â€“ Contractors working for the California Department of Transportation began an act of environmental vandalism late Saturday night along Alameda Creek, cutting nearly 50 native trees along the creek corridor in lower Niles Canyon. CalTrans plans to continue cutting native trees this week and is pursuing a project to kill hundreds more trees along the creek throughout the scenic canyon as part of an unnecessary, controversial and environmentally destructive road widening of Highway 84 through Niles Canyon. Local Niles residents held a protest Saturday during the tree cutting. Cutting will resume tonight.
â€œWe intend to stop this stupidity and destruction of the trees in the creek corridor by CalTrans,â€ said Jeff Miller, Director of the Alameda Creek Alliance. â€œThey are cutting 40-foot oaks and sycamores along the Alameda Creek riparian zone, which is important habitat for fish and wildlife. The proposed highway widening project will not reduce traffic accidents, but it will make Niles Canyon more dangerous for drivers and in the process harm Alameda Creek, degrade fish habitat and jeopardize decades of restoration efforts, destroy a designated scenic highway and ruin the scenic beauty of Niles Canyon.â€
CalTrans plans to continue cutting trees this week and will cut hundreds more native trees from the creek corridor throughout the canyon and build nearly two miles of visual blight in the form of cement retaining walls adjacent to Alameda Creek as part of an $80 million Niles Canyon â€œsafety improvementâ€ project the agency claims is necessary to improve highway and bicycle safety. However, state safety statistics show that Niles Canyon does not have a relatively high accident rate and in fact is below the state average. The project may actually increase traffic fatalities them by allowing cars to travel at higher speeds through the canyon. The City of Fremont voted earlier this month to pursue banning large trucks from Niles Canyon, since trucks cause a disproportionate number of traffic accidents (38%) in the canyon and most of the fatal accidents. Trucks often use the canyon to avoid the truck scales on Highway 680, contributing to unsafe truck traffic.
â€œPeople use Niles Canyon Road and ride the historic train because they provide important links to this areaâ€™s past, and there is a spiritual connection to the canyon that will disappear when it becomes just another funnel for speeding traffic,â€ said Michelle Powell, a local resident who has organized opposition to the project. â€œThere will be economic hardships in local communities if this project goes through. Niles Canyon is more than a blip in somebodyâ€™s regional traffic scheme and should be treasured, not destroyed. This is a waste of millions of taxpayer dollars at a time we can least afford it. We call on our elected state and federal representatives to stop this project.â€
The tree cutting is part of the first phase of a massive three-part Caltrans â€œsafety improvementâ€ project in Niles Canyon. Caltrans illegally split the environmental analysis into three reviews to make the environmental impacts appear smaller. Caltrans got a flurry of public comments opposing the project during the second part of the environmental review last fall. The Alameda Creek Alliance, City of Fremont, Sunol Citizenâ€™s Advisory Committee, California Native Plant Society and Citizenâ€™s Committee to Complete the Refuge are opposing the project and commented on the inadequacy of the environmental review. In August the Regional Water Quality Control Board announced it â€œwould be unlikely to issue the necessary approvals for this projectâ€ due to significant environmental impacts. The second phase is scheduled to begin in 2012.
The project would widen much of Niles Canyon Road between Fremont and Interstate 680 to provide 12-foot lanes, a 2-foot median, and 2-foot to 8-foot shoulders. Constructing a median barrier, increasing the radius of curves, creating new roadway shoulders, installing guard rails, and place retaining walls and rip-rap along more than four miles would require cutting 439 native trees from the Alameda Creek riparian corridor and pouring nearly two miles of concrete retaining walls, some adjacent to Alameda Creek. Cutting and filling in the canyon and installing rip-rap would harm impact important habitat for steelhead trout, California red-legged frog, Alameda whipsnake, rare sycamore forest habitat, and other native wildlife.
There are less environmentally damaging alternative solutions Caltrans has not evaluated such as installing radar speed signs, median barriers, and rumble strips, focusing on localized problem areas, trimming or removing selected trees, or other measures within the existing roadway footprint.
Alameda Creek is considered to be an â€˜anchor watershedâ€™ for steelhead trout, regionally significant for restoration of the threatened ocean-going trout to the entire Bay Area. Since local steelhead were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1997, numerous organizations and agencies have cooperated on restoration projects to allow migratory fish from the Bay to reach spawning habitat in upper Alameda Creek. Thirteen fish passage improvement projects, including dam removals, construction of fish ladders, and installation of fish screens, have been completed in the watershed since 2001, aimed at allowing steelhead and other anadromous fish to reach suitable spawning and rearing habitat. Several more fish passage projects in the lower creek are expected to be completed by 2011-2013, allowing steelhead to migrate freely upstream into Niles Canyon and the upper watershed for the first time in half a century.
The Alameda Creek Alliance (www.alamedacreek.org) is a community watershed group with over 1,800 members, dedicated to protecting and restoring the natural ecosystems of the Alameda Creek watershed. The Alameda Creek Alliance has been working to restore steelhead trout and protect endangered species in the Alameda Creek watershed since 1997.