Caltrans at Willits: Widening the Way to Pelican Bay

Will Parrish needs your support. He now faces eight years in prison; in addition, $490,000 in fines, “restitution”.  And for what? For delaying a freeway, the “Redwood Highway” – the California 101.

Parrish is a journalist here in Willits, in Mendocino County. He is also an activist and a teacher. His trial is scheduled for the County Courthouse in Ukiah, at 8:30 AM, on January 28th.

Will’s crime must be peculiarly Californian, a crime against a freeway. It must, from the grave, be raising Ronald Reagan’s hackles, jolting his memory. We’re told, incessantly in the media, this delay also enrages our ordinary travelers; drivers, it seems, now delayed five minutes (or so) along the main street of Willits on the trip to Eureka.

Willits, Eureka, Mendocino, Humboldt, why here? In this wildest corner of the state? “California’s transportation infrastructure – once the freeway wonder of the world – now lags hopelessly behind…”, Mike Davis tells us this, and quite rightly, but you can’t say they’re not trying. The issue here is a bypass.

Mike’s down south, where the people are. Things are different here. There are fewer than 5000 people in Willits, its population in decline; there are just about 90,000 people in Mendocino County, a few more than in new Mayor Bill De Blasio’s Brooklyn neighborhood. But this is a big County, nearly 100 miles south to north. We have lots of elbow room. And that’s Mendocino; take 101 north and there’s hardly anyone at all. The shrewd driver, once in southern Humboldt, can easily make up the time. Then it’s the supermax at Pelican Bay in nothing flat.

But it doesn’t matter, it’s systemic.  Caltrans, the state’s mega transportation department is pushing the bypass at Willits; it’s wanted it for a long time.  It’s for our own good, of course. And Caltrans has a plan. A master plan? Indeed it’s had this very plan for twenty years (it seems it’s always a good time for a new freeway). Caltrans has proposed and is now building a $200 million, six mile, four-lane freeway the size of Interstate 5.

Willits is “the Gateway to the Redwoods”, drivers learn this from a large arch they pass under (not from actual trees). They also navigate a five mile stretch of two lane traffic, two lights, then an array of shops, etc., few really worth slowing down for. The one real problem, let’s be fair here, is the snag where state route 20, at Safeway and a light, turns off to Fort Bragg and the Coast. It is a bottleneck. I’ve seen rush hour traffic backed up two or three blocks, delays of five minutes or so. But let’s have some perspective on this. We’re out in the country, on our way to the Redwoods, the few remaining. We’re just not talking about the BQE on Monday morning or the Santa Monica Freeway on Tuesday nights.

So $200 million? California is just clawing itself out of the recession. We’ve hardly had time to catch our breath, how will we undo the damage done to our schools, our services, our health and welfare?  Costs still figure even here, even in this latest boomlet. Caltrans likes to keep it quiet, but the first stage of the freeway bypass will be only two lanes, though construction will prepare for an eventual four. Back to Mike Davis, there’s something more than meets the eye here, something “primal”.

Good, sensible people in Willits have been fighting the bypass here for twenty years; they’ve challenged Caltrans every foot of the way – they’ve demanded proper public input, attention to environmental regulations, a haven for rare birds, and protection of wetlands, this last elemental, primary in terms of survival here in (too) thirsty California. It’s amazing, the persistence of these people. And they’ve been willing to seek compromises – perhaps a smaller project. But Caltrans has been patient too (and with 22,000 employees, the state’s huge contractors on your side, also the local politicians, building trades unions, etc., I suppose it’s easy to be patient).

Will Parish is a new-comer of sorts to this (a new-comer in California? Is that an oxymoron?). He’s been up here in Mendocino County for just four years, and we’re very lucky for it. Will grew up in Santa Cruz, his parents teachers, his home fronting a Redwood forest, his childhood sanctuary. Will went to UC Santa Cruz, majoring there in Sociology and Journalism. The administration apparently considered the Journalism School a problem (a sure sign it was doing its job), and used the 2003 round of cuts to get rid of it. Will reckons he’s the last of its graduates.

Will, as a journalist, sought out issues of power and war; he dug into the roots of the Bay Area’s war connections, in particular those in the UC system – no shortage of material there. Nuclear weapons, nuclear power appalled him. And he combined writing with activism; he is a journalist in the best tradition of our muckrakers, a writer “with his boots on the ground”. This is a good expression, I think; I’m taking it from my mentor, the late Edward Thompson, in his own time a relentless opponent of the war machine, of nuclear weapons in particular, writer and activist.

Close Counterpunch readers will remember Will’s many contributions including:  How Imperial San Franciscans Loot the Planet (February 26-28 2010 with Darwin Bond-Graham) and Who Runs the University of California?  (March 01, 2010 with Bond-Graham).  And here in wine country his focus has been the burgeoning wine industry: see pieces including In the Shadow of the Gallos; Sonoma County, Banana Republic of Wine Grapes (January 21-23, 2011).

In Mendocino Will began with a focus has been the burgeoning wine industry, its owners, its workers and its place in the economy (see, for example, In the Shadow of the Gallos; Sonoma County, Banana Republic of Wine Grapes, Counterpunch, January 21-23, 2011). And on the wetlands of the Little Lake Valley.

“When I first came here, Willits, I fell in love with the tranquility here, with the mountains, the boggy marshes, the grasslands, the eco-diversity, the space. And no freeway. The 101 stops just south of Willits – that makes it a different world here.

“My journalism, my practice, has always been to scan the horizon, to look for the most pressing problems, to look for the problems that most need addressing.

“The bypass issue struck me as a really big problem, a thing that really needed addressing.  And that meant getting involved; I can’t write and not be involved.” (See “The Insanity of the Willits Bypass”, in the Ukiah Blog, January 8th, 2013)

Here’s an example:

“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 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.

In June, Will climbed a wick drain “stitcher”, a giant machine there to plant tens of thousands of drainage tubes along the path of freeway construction, tubes to drain the wetlands and stabilize the earth upon which the highway will be built – in the process destroying Little Lake Valley wetlands, the largest Northern California wetlands to be drained in any single project in the past fifty years. So David and Goliath again. Will: “Caltrans is a scofflaw agency that, by virtue of a failed political and regulatory system, is facing no other forms of real accountability for causing immense and probably irreversible destruction of Little Lake Valley.”

An important argument in this entire conflict is that the whole project is illegal, Caltrans having violated nearly every regulation possible.

“I threw myself in because the more I came to understand this the more upset I became. The Willits project epitomizes so much of everything that is wrong; it epitomizes the power dynamics that underlie all the problems I see in society.”

Will lived on a platform, more than fifty feet up, for eleven days. Will is six foot five, no, not a basketball player, rather tennis, a large, attentive, kind man, hair flowing like Clay Matthew’s, only dark brown. Gentle, yes. Passive, no. Will on the stitcher was a figure not to be missed. And the California Highway Patrol (CHP) took every precaution in bringing him down – precaution meaning that they overwhelmed him, attacking with swat teams, climbing specialists (a career path), hoisted in giant bucket loaders, prepared with saws specifically designed to cut him loose. But not until the entire project had been halted.

This story has not generated the emotion, the energy of Julia Butterfly Hill’s but it demands our attention, as do dozens of such projects here in California’s Northwest. They are fundamental contests. They are about our future. In the stitcher Will lived in a sort of house arrest, surrounded on the ground by dozens of the small army of CHP troopers brought into Willits. He was deprived of food; the CHP even arrested six people who attempted to bring him supplies. He went six days without food, surviving an unseasonal rain storm, also bitter cold.

Construction started in February, 2013, but was delayed until spring. Will was not the first to be arrested. There were others, tree sitters, people who sat down in the paths of bulldozers (West Bank weapons) – fifty people in all have been arrested, these people too demand our support. They include a core of those who have kept this crusade alive, all these years. In truth, it’s been a small group that has kept this issue alive; many were the young at heart – often 50, 60, even 70 year olds, but tenacious. Against them the troopers, the choppers, the armed vehicles.

Will is charged with trespassing, “unlawful entry”. (He is also charged with two “resisting arrests”.) So Will and his supporters expected him to be charged with two or three two misdemeanors. Some tree sitters have yet to be charged with anything. The Mendocino County District Attorney, David Eyster, typical of the small town bullies we suffer as DA’s, offered a plea bargain, but this left Will subject to restitution. Will refused, asked for a jury trial. Infuriated, Eyster made a package of the misdemeanors; charging Will instead with 16 misdemeanors, these with a cumulative maximum eight-year jail sentence. As it happens, Caltrans then piled on with a demand for $490.000.02 in restitution.  The costs of delay!

I have heard it said that the sentence demanded in this case is unusual, harsh in nominally liberal and eco-friendly Mendocino County. True, this isn’t South Carolina, and it is also true that there is something of a history of tolerance in this County. And there is radicalism of a certain kind; many here are on alert for peak oil, Fukushima, broken bridges, marine protectors, black choppers. And thank heavens for it. But, for the few who will remember, Tony Craver and Norm Vroman are gone. Still, there is a curious way in which Eyster relates to the growers, so he often gets a pass. But he’s not on his own, he’s certainly not the only bully in the County, and he’s not the only one who is happy to not see our biggest industries’ bad behaviors.

Will has lived up to his self-pledge to seek out the most pressing problems, and to get to the bottom of them.  In this case he’s found wetlands. And water, fundamentals for all California, and no small concern here in California, now in the grips of an historic drought. Wetlands take us to water and water to the growers. The grape growers here are not mom and pop operations; they are more likely Silicon Valley veterans, wealthy people with more money than they know what to do with.  They come here to concoct boutique wines; but premium wine production touches everything, from the price of land to the very structure of labor, and not for the better. They create the groomed landscape that the Anderson Valley has become. But they also consume the water; now, as we await our rainy season, we have dry creeks and depleted rivers. And they bring pesticides, and all the nasty environmental procedures that are the unmentionables in an eco-friendly County. And these are not on David Eyster’s agenda. And salmon that still don’t come back. Will Parrish is our Lincoln Steffens (The Shame of the Cities, 1904). And they don’t like him.

There is a similar story with our biggest industry, that is, with “the crop”, marijuana. Of course it’s an underground economy; of course it has its victims, its innocents. Yet it too is extractive in the worst senses; it too drains our streams, poisons them, it drives up the price of land, it too takes the profits away. It creates our culture of secrecy; ask no questions, it stretches out the class divide while thriving on illusions of community. No wonder Mendocino is still a poor County, its schools struggle, its public services all but non-existent. Our “infrastructure” crumbles – our County roads? No help from Caltrans for these. And Will has had the courage to say this.

So why is Eyster being the bully? I think we have a conspiracy here, but it’s an open conspiracy, its origins, its cast of characters is right here for all to see. Caltrans wants roads, big roads; the builders want to build. Eyster’s job, grease the wheels. It’s systemic. Why would he not be the bully? A few examples will quiet things down, or so he seems to think. He’s got Will Parrish on deck.

The 101 is named the Redwood Highway and for good reason. Its construction began in the twenties – for us in the North it begins on the Golden Gate Bridge; it then passes through a series of lovely valleys until it reaches the mountains of northern Mendocino County, then it follows the South Fork of the Eel toward Eureka and on to the Oregon border. Its initial construction was promoted as a pathway to a tourist’s paradise, that is, the motoring tourist. It opened up a new world, magnificent yet until then inaccessible. The 101 had on offer – for those with cars – giant trees, raging wild rivers, steep canyons, rugged mountains, there to see, yet all without a step out the door.

There was another intention, however. By the twenties, the coastal Redwood forests were all but exhausted; the depression of the thirties put an end to the “harvest”. There remained, however, millions of acres of old growth Redwood, just out of reach of the coastal mills. Not, however, out of reach of the truck, the bulldozer and the chain saw. The 101 cleared the way that led to the final ravaging of the forest; in sheer destruction it far surpassed that of the late nineteenth century, though the old images – man vs. tree – still dominate our imagination of this history. The result, today fewer than four percent of the old growth survives. Second and third growth forests still are cut; there is farming. But the great Redwood forests, once a common of unimaginable value, a true wonder of the world, remain only terribly wounded, and almost all as private property, no trespassing.

This part of California, its “wildest” corner, grabs people, it moves them. It’s got Will and the Willits tree sitters, Warbler and the others, the bulldozer blockaders (I think of Rachel Corrie), its geriatric Wobblies facing down the troopers. And Willits is not the only site of conflict. Caltrans wants the road widened at Richardson Grove; it wants the road up to Oregon straightened. Never mind our remaining giant trees.  Never mind the Smith River canyon, the path to the sea of California’s only undammed river.

I see the conspiracy when I drive home from the City, up the 101 to Cloverdale. It’s not hidden. The traffic on an afternoon is of course catastrophe in Northern Marin and on through Sonoma to Santa Rosa. So the solution? There are massive projects now in place, ever widening the highway, knocking down whatever is left in its path, so far almost to Windsor.

In its path, strip malls and giant box stores follow, one after another; sometimes it’s as if we’re in a tunnel of Mall. Then comes the sprawl.

And so it continues, the highways will soon be jammed again; Caltrans will push on northwards. Development. Plunder. Profit.  It’s a “primal scene”, Mike Davis (Ecology of Fear) again. The widenings, the bypasses, these are “the familiar tremors heralding an eruption of growth that will wipe away human and natural history”.

Will and his comrades see this, the insanity of it all. They understand that this will not stop at Cloverdale or Ukiah. They understand the damage being done – “to human and natural history”.

The wetlands in Little Lake Valley are small, really; they have already been damaged by the agriculturalists of a century ago. Are they worth saving? I wondered if the Willits fighters had not perhaps exaggerated.

Counterpunch readers will recognize Ignacio Chapela as the microbial ecologist and mycologist at the University of California, Berkeley, known for exposure of the flow of transgenes into wild maize.

Ignacio explains, “The highland wetlands are the basis of the health of the whole environment, this includes all the ecosystems downstream, they are the basis for everything, our water, the diversity of species, everything is at stake.”

“Will is a young investigative reporter, one of a kind. He’s not afraid of pursuing questions to their ultimate consequence. It’s not surprising at all to me that he’s working on wetlands, he understands environmental problems deeply and has the unique capacity to make these clear in his writings.

“It would be a terrible loss for California, also for environmental journalists everywhere, if he is silenced – even slowed down.

“I want to do whatever I can to do to support him and I want invite everyone to join us.”

So do I.


Support Will in Court. Ukiah County Courthouse, 8:30 am, January 28, 2014

Send messages to: Mendocino District Attorney David Eyster at

or to

Supervisor Fifth District, Dan Hamburg at

Contributions can be sent to: Little Lake Valley Legal Fund/Will Parrish, Box 131, Willits, CA  95490

Cal Winslow is the author of Labor’s Civil War in California, PM Press, 2012 (second edition, revised and expanded), an editor of Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt From Below during the Long Seventies (Verso, 2010), and a co-editor of West of Eden, Communes and Utopia in Northern California (PM Press, 2012). His latest book is a collection of the writings of Edward Thompson, E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left (forthcoming from Monthly Review Press). He is a Fellow at UC Berkeley, Director of the Mendocino Institute and associated with the Bay Area gathering, Retort. He can be reached at



Cal Winslow is the author of Radical Seattle: the General Strike of 1919. He can be reached at