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A Groundtruthing Adventure

Base Camp examines and documents environmental impacts of Caltrans ‘Last Chance Grade Project’

Editor’s Note: This a special contribution from Kyra Skylark. The author attended this event as a student volunteer and has previously worked for the Lumberjack as a reporter and Science editor. The current Lumberjack photo editor, Nick Kemper also attended and shot photos for the group.

Contributors Note: I attended this event as both a student volunteer and as a journalist, therefore some of my own personal views may be reflected in the story. -Kyra Skylark

“I discovered the difference between reading about something and seeing,” Tom Wheeler said. “Seeing on a paper is different from seeing in person, in person the trees and the great biodiversity of that area really stood out.”

Tom Wheeler, the executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center was a group leader on EPIC’s 2018 annual Base Camp trip.

Earlier this month EPIC hosted their second annual Base Camp at Rock Creek Ranch.

Students and community members were invited to volunteer to help in examining and groundtruthing two of the Last Chance Grade Project alternatives.

Groundtruthing is visiting a proposed project site to document what the project looks like through direct observation.

Ariel Nelson, an Humboldt State University student majoring in environmental science and management with a focus in ecological restoration, attended EPIC’s 2018 Base Camp.

“I was looking for more opportunities to gain field experience in regards to environmental work in general and it seemed like a cool camping trip as well, so I cleared up my weekend commitments and went for it,” Nelson said.

The proposed Last Chance Grade Project is a highway development project in Del Norte county, 10 miles south of Crescent City.

“The Last Chance Grade slide area of the 101 has experienced a lot of landslides over the last hundred years with some pretty catastrophic road failures, so Caltrans is looking at ways to redesign or move the road to get around this critical slide area,” Wheeler said. “Caltrans has determined that it needs to rethink the current road alignment because it is not safe and does not provide reliable transit between Del Norte and Humboldt counties.”

EPIC’s Base Camp volunteer group examined and documented two of the six proposed alternatives for the Caltrans project.

“We chose to examine alternatives A2 and L because relative to the other alternatives, these look like they may end up as the main proposed alternatives, so it was necessary for us to examine them and their proposed impacts,” Wheeler said.

Lenore Ogbor, a retired special education elementary school teacher from New York City, happened to be within a few hours of the area just in time to go on EPIC’s Base Camp.

“I didn’t know that the redwoods had such a shallow root system or that they spread horizontally and close to the surface holding each other up as a sort of interdependent system,” Ogbor said. “How putting a road 10 feet away from a redwood, while you may be trying to saving the tree, you’re still damaging the root system. I learned that the redwood trees help each other to stand up and then they are able to support all these different animals, trees, plants and the whole ecosystem within, as they are also cooperating with each other to stay vertical.”

EPIC and the Base Camp group concluded that the L alternative was prefered over alternative A2. Alternative A2 would cut through three acres of old growth redwoods within the Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park.

Gabe Kim, an HSU film major and a videographer intern for EPIC, who went to EPIC’s Base Camp to document the trip was also amazed by the width of the trees.

“It was cool seeing the 13 foot wide redwood trees [in alternative A2] and watching everyone documenting the area using avenza maps that as I documented through video,” Kim said. “It really got me thinking about how beautiful the scenery is and what we would be missing if the road was in fact built and all those redwoods were cut down.”

Everyone seemed both awed and sad while walking through the old growth redwood forest of A2.

“I’d never seen trees that big in my life,” Nelson said. “It was my favorite part because I was able to step into such an untouched landscape, but it was also devastating to realize if that alternative is chosen all those trees are going to be gone.”

The Base Camp volunteers participated in different activities such as groundtruthing, map and compass orienteering, environmental policy overviews and know your rights trainings. Some individuals, like Lenore Ogbor, were only in the area to participate EPIC’s Base Camp and departed after the weekend was done.

“All of these people gathered with a common interest, with different degrees of knowledge, but sharing in this passion,” Ogbor said. “There was a large range of ages and a good amount of the people there were students.”

Many students in attendance are studying exactly what EPIC was teaching at Base Camp, and were able to apply their studies to the activities.

“It was cool to come into it with an understanding of how environmental assessment works,” Nelson said.

While some were excited to demonstrate and apply their knowledge, others were simply excited to share in everyone’s knowledge and joy.

“Just watching and hearing the students, I could tell they were able to bring some of the stuff they’re learning in class alive right there and then,” Ogbor said. “The students had already learned some of what the group leaders were talking about, it wasn’t all brand new knowledge and their synapses were just click, click, click, clicking away. I’ve been a teacher for many years and I just love seeing that kind of spark and interest.”

The gathering of students and community volunteers was the first step in the environmental assessment of the Last Chance Grade project. From here, EPIC and other organizations will continue to assess the different road alternatives creating additional opportunities for community members to be a part of this process.

“A note to everyone in general, you do have an impact, you can change decisions just by putting yourself out there and getting involved any way that you can, every single person has a roll that they can play,” Nelson said.

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