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Jared Huffman: CalTrans Errand Boy

"I think this is the district in the state that can and should serve up a real environmental leader in a time of great need and urgency — and that's why I'm running." — US. Rep Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), 2006

Last week, the US Congressional representative for California's North Coast, a former Natural Resources Defense Council attorney named Jared Huffman, threw the full weight of his legislative power behind the most environmentally destructive project in the recent history of Mendocino County, the California Department of Transportation's Willits Bypass. This more than $300 million project, as presently designed, requires the largest filling in of wetlands in northern California in more than 50 years.


Huffman's intervention came as the Bypass was in major crisis. The US Army Corps of Engineers had suspended most of the Bypass' construction on June 20th, due to CalTrans' brazen non-compliance with its construction permit authorized under the Clean Water Act. The costs of delay were mounting, as was Big Orange's embarrassment at having the project delayed on environmental grounds, following month after month of environmental protests.

The longer the project was delayed, the greater the chances that CalTrans would have to reduce the project's environmental impact, exactly as opponents of the project have been calling for.

On the morning of July 9th, Huffman released a statement announcing that “my staff and I have been in almost daily contact with both [CalTrans and the Army Corps] over the past three weeks urging resolution of the permit compliance problem. I have personally met with and had multiple phone calls with officials from both agencies, and today I convened an emergency conference call that included the key leaders from both agencies as well as my predecessor and colleague, Representative Thompson.”

Later that day, the Army Corps and CalTrans announced they had reached an agreement allowing Bypass construction to restart. Under the terms of the suspension, CalTrans had been required to compensate for its delay in enacting “mitigation” for environmental damage, either by creating new wetlands or by reducing the project's size. As part of the settlement, though, CalTrans simply has to promise to “create” and “enhance” new wetlands at some point, without bothering to specify where or how.

In other words, Huffman and Thompson applied pressure, and the Army Corps caved. The Corps essentially got nothing out of the agreement; nothing, that is, other than more promises from CalTrans to remedy the enormous damage it has caused to Little Lake Valley.

What does CalTrans claim it will do? “Establish wetlands” to make up for the destroyed ones. These “wetlands establishment areas” are to be located in areas of Little Lake Valley that are already wetlands. This so-called “mitigation construction” is based on excavation of an estimated 266,000 cubic yards of soil, which will wreak even greater harm on the valley's streams and floodplains. It's much like mitigating for rainforest destruction under the guise of “establishing” new rainforest by cutting down even more rainforest, then claiming credit for replacing it with “new rainforest.”

Two weeks ago in the AVA, I predicted that the Army Corps' suspension would soon be lifted, noting that it is “always wise to err on the side of assuming that a regulatory agency will buckle under political pressure.” I then made the following mistaken claim: “One thing working in Bypass opponents’ favor, however, is that the current Congressional representative for this district, Jared Huffman, is somewhat less friendly to the Bypass than was his predecessor, Mike Thompson. It is unlikely that Huffman will pressure the Corps to allow the project to resume in the way Thompson would have.”

Huffman had been winking at the Bypass opposition for several months. He claimed early on that if CalTrans got out of compliance with its mitigation requirements, that he would “stand shoulder to shoulder” with members of Save Our Little Lake Valley to address the problem. On May 21st, he sent a letter to CalTrans higher-ups on May 21st asking them to justify their stance that reducing the northern interchange is infeasible.

The Bypass has been under construction since March 2013. Most of the overall damage is done. As of this writing, though, only about 10 percent of the wetlands filling has taken place. By simply replacing the project's massive and unnecessary northern interchange with a roundabout – a roundabout that would handle 50 percent less traffic than that on Highway 20 in Nice – it remains possible to scuttle a large portion of the wetlands destruction. All that would be required is a change-work order from CalTrans. Perhaps all that would be required to enact the change-work order would be the right kind of pressure from Jared Huffman.

In these United States, the role of elected representatives is primarily to carry out the legislative agendas of their wealthy sponsors. For all of its flaws, the Occupy Movement did much to bring this basic fact of Euro-American politics into the frame of public consciousness. An increasing sub-set of the wealthy sponsors is made up of wealthy environmentalists, who overwhelmingly support Democrats. Organized labor also exerts an important, but ever-diminishing, influence on the legislative agenda of the Democratic Party's liberal wing.

With respect to organized labor, Operating Engineers Union Local 3, who perform Willits Bypass construction work on behalf of the massive construction corporations that CalTrans has hired out, are Huffman's 13th largest career donor, according to the web site Open Secrets. They have kicked in more than $14,000 to Huffman's campaigns for Assembly and Congress.

The Operating Engineers have a major stake in the Bypass, and it is reasonable to speculate that they applied pressure on Huffman to get the Bypass restarted. After all, the same union even went so far as to pay to haul 50 or so of its workers in from as far away from Fresno to stage a series of “Build The Bypass” rallies at the corner of Highway 101 and Highway 20 in March 2013. This astroturf campaign came about after environmentalists' early success at staving off the start of construction.

In contrast, Huffman's support base includes a great number of wealthy environmentalists. They have championed him throughout his career as both a California State Assemblyman and a US Congressman as he has placed himself at the center, for example, of the US's narrow policy debates concerning climate change. Huffman is a strong proponent of “cap and trade” legislation, which represents an effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming without cutting too heavily into the profits of the rich and powerful.

Some of these individuals might be inclined to sympathize with Willits Bypass opponents. A big part of the issue with Jared Huffman, though, is geography. Although our Congressional rep's district encompasses five counties, roughly 90% of his campaign donations in 2012 election came from only one of those counties: ultra-wealthy Marin County. Most of the rest came from Sonoma County. Very little came from the hinterlands of the north: Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte.

The underlying reason for that is the history of capitalist development in California, whereby San Francisco is the dominant capitalist city lying at the center of California’s extractive economy. The great city, as geographer Gray Brechin described it in his wonderful and definitive book Imperial San Francisco, is where California’s commerce and industry were born in the 1850s. As the capitalist markets expanded, SF developed a surrounding archipelago of towns that acted in a cooperative but subordinate role, including most of Mendocino County, serving essentially as colonies in unequal market-exchange relations, and allowing the city to drain the wealth and resources of the less advanced areas.

So, we end up with a situation like the CalTrans Bypass. Caltrans knows how to play a small town and a rural county. They have appropriated nearly $300 million dollars to fix a small traffic problem in Willits, including the cost of mitigation (now almost $90 million). The Democrats get to toss their union supporters a bone. The environment of Little Lake Valley gets trashed. The wealthy enviros of Marin are too far away to notice or care. After all, the Army Corps of Engineers and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board claim the whole thing is a wash as far as the environment goes.

Save Our Little Lake Valley typically has a few grand in the till, which is used to maintain a web site, print fliers, and pay for food at events. The Willits Environmental Center scrapes together enough money to keep its office open and occasionally file lawsuits.

Another wrinkle has to do with one of the wealthiest of all San Francisco dynasties: the Fishers, best known as the family that operates The Gap retail clothing chain, as well as a far flung real estate empire. Altogether, the Fishers are worth an estimated $9 billion. One of the private equity firms of which the Fishers are majority owners, named Sansome Partners, owns Mendocino Redwood Company and Humboldt Redwood Company.

The Fishers have been among Huffman's most generous financial backers throughout his political career (including donating $10,000 to his campaign for Congress). When Huffman worked at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) as one of its primary staff lawyers in California, a member of the Fisher clan – Robert Fisher – was the NRDC's vice chairman.

Mendocino Redwood Company owns roughly 10 percent of private land in Mendocino County. Its subsidiary, Mendocino Forest Products Co., has a contract with CalTrans to provide over 900,000 cubic yards of soil from its abandoned mill site north of Willits to dump upon the Little Lake Valley wetlands.

The agreement with CalTrans is a notable one for MRC. CalTrans is removing roughly 40 percent of the soil from an industrial zoned site, which Mendocino Forest Products has acknowledged increases the usable area of the site for future profitable activity there.

(Contact Will Parrish at


  1. John Sakowicz July 16, 2014


    I think your characterization of Congressman Jared Huffman is unfair. Jared is one of our country’s strongest environmentalists in Congress. For that reason, Jared was named by House leadership to the House Natural Resources Committee, where Jared sits on three — I repeat, three — subcommittees.

    They include: the Subcommittee for Water and Power, the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, and the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation.

    Sitting on three subcommittees of a Congressional committee is very rare, especially for a freshman in Congress.

    Additionally, Jared’s voting record
    and sponsored legislation during his first term in Congress is entirely consistent with the highest environmentalist ideals.

    Regarding the Willits Bypass, please keep in mind the following six factors.

    One, Congressman Mike Thompson supported the Willits Bypass. Congressman Jared Huffman inherited the Willits Bypass as a legacy project.

    Two, according to Mendocino County 3rd District Supervisor John Pinches, 80 per cent of the people in Mendocino County’s 3red District support the Willits Bypass Project. Johnny Pinches is very close to constituents, so I don’t doubt this estimate of local support.

    Three, also according to Supervisor Pinches, the majority of people in the counties north of Mendocino County support the Willits Bypass, including people in the Counties of Humboldt, Del Norte, and Trinity. The Willits Bypass is an economic development issue for them. The Willits Bypass is a project of great regional significance. Remember too, all of these north counties are in Congressman Huffman’s district.

    Four, the unions and other workers involved in the project were badly hurt by work stop order for three weeks, and they became increasingly angry. They were furloughed. Out of work. No paychecks. Unions and working people are core support for Democrats. I’m sure this fact is not lost on Congressman Huffman, especially in an election year.

    Five, the work stop order on the Willits Bypass for three weeks cost Caltrans and the State of California approximately $100,000 a day.

    Six, opponents of the Willits Bypass had 20 years of public hearings and other opportunities to make their opposition to the project known. We are now long past that point in time.

    Please be fair to Congressman Huffman. He took a balanced and rational approach to the completion of the Willits Bypass. Congressman Huffman has worked tirelessly, diligently, and in good faith, for three weeks, with the Army Corps of Engineers, Caltrans, and Congressman Thompson, to get the Willits Bypass back into compliance with its permits. Congressman Huffman advocated for environmental compliance every step of the way.

    Congressman Jared Huffman is a strong environmentalist of whom California’s 2nd Congressional District can be proud. Going forward, hopefully the project will be completed without additional delays, disruptions, or costs to the taxpayers.

    • chewsome July 17, 2014

      Sako’s comment seems to be a greenwash, and just doesn’t pass the smell test in my book, that being with the elephant in the room, the influence of big money with Huffman bought off.

      This is not a legacy project, as environmental permit machinations have been ongoing, during Huffman’s watch while this Congressman’s head is in sand or distracted in Washington, despite on air KZYX pledge to get involve if environmental law requirements are not complied with.

      As to popularity contest with who supports what kind of Willits Bypass, that is a slippery slope in what context. Are we talking California transportation over arching policy determination to 4 lane highway 101 from one end of the state to the other.

      Are we talking common folk who got stuck at Caltrans deliberate traffic contrived local traffic jam lane restriping at 20/101 in Willits.

      And who up north of Willits really is stressing about having to downshift a gear or two, with the alternative proposed for two lane and a Round About and smaller footprint on the north end of the Bypass construction zone.

      Or should we just pave the whole thing, thus be preparing for much traffic north headed for temperate rainforest in coastal mountains, with a possibly fairly immediate rise of, say not so hypothetical 20 feet ocean sea levels, and resultant possible collapse of bulk of human civilization.

      That is, if the Arctic icepack clearance this summer triggers unstoppable release of frozen Methyl Hydrates as suggested by recent NOAA fueled study news.

      As far as workers badly hurt, there have been some scorcher sweltering hot dog days in past few weeks in Willits Valley, and certainly some of these road warrior workers who aren’t paid so little that they are living paycheck to paycheck, had a chance to enjoy extended summer vacation with some appreciation for time off in the local rural community that they are visiting here.

      With Huffman as a freshman Congressman in his first year, being appointed to 3 environmental sub-committees, that speaks to musical chairs and someone pulling strings behind the curtain, stirring a breeze of big money influence.

      A normal freshman would be sidelined for years. Ask pretty boy Hamburg, then Democrat in Congress.

      Despite Sakowicz efforts here, Huffman isn’t about to getting a pass for ramming through a restart of the Bypass, unless I am misreading the facts of settlement agreement that has no teeth, depending on interpretation of the wording.

      Caltrans can just punt, make a decision to go forward and do it, before the October deadline on some reconsideration as to the fill. Huffman is balking at an opportunity to change project scope.

      Right now Marin might back Huffman, but there is one heck of a traffic jam on 101 between Sonoma – Marin, and a big shortfall of road improvement funds for this and many other much more important projects, so Marin may yet sting Huffman for a lapse in judgement, depending how news breaking federal transportation funding slight of hand plays out short term.

      This could be Huffman’s waterloo to lampoon him for years, except for the powerful force of campaign dollars, and Sako at work here in a steam roller effort to placate while skimming over the fine print detail that contains significant truth to power.

      What arm twisting and veiled threats and treats to future Congressional USACE appropriations, brokering the deal hammered in place by Huffman, we may never hear the beginning nor end of. Time for Huffman to eat crow or hang head in shame for eternity in the Willits Valley.

  2. Lazarus July 17, 2014

    Lots of wordiness that adds up to more diversity….so tired of the negativity.
    Lets make this really simple. Huffman yanked the army corps chain and they stepped on CT. Thompson yanked on Huffman’s chain cause this is/was his deal. Huffman is a freshman, Thompson a senior…..together they got on the phone and Thompson made the deal……Huffman was allowed to hang around and learn at the masters feet.
    No doubt CT North is arrogant, then again maybe just stupid…if it were my railroad everyone from Fielder to Frisbie would be recalled to Sacramento, aka FIRED……Bring in the pros from LA who really know how to build a road!

  3. Mark Scaramella July 20, 2014

    (Posting for Will Parrish)
    Will Parrish Replies:
    Unfortunately, Mr. Sakowicz’s letter reads like a press release from a Huffman staff member. Its narrative regarding the Willits Bypass is roughly this: “CalTrans made has made a good-faith effort for 20 years, as part of a democratically determined process, to design a freeway. The freeway is very popular among local people. Last month, CalTrans was out of compliance with its permits. A hard-working regional environmental hero, Rep. Jared Huffman, has worked tirelessly to rein them back in. Everything is okay; please stop objecting to this project now!”
    Sorry, but all of that is just absurd.
    CalTrans has been out of compliance with its permits since Day One, and that’s even after the permitting process was tilted in Big Orange’s favor even more than it normally would be thanks to the efforts of Congressman Thompson, et al. (See: CalTrans, A Rogue Agency.)
    Huffman has never made any effort to bring CalTrans into compliance with environmental regulations.
    Bypassing Willits is a popular idea, of course. The CalTrans version of a Willits Bypass, on the other hand, has met with relatively deep-seated opposition. One tires of making the exact same point yet again at this late date, but here you go: The Bypass is an overbuilt boondoggle. CalTrans systematically excluded from consideration any two-lane option for a bypass, just as they exclude smaller projects from consideration in lots of other places: Willits & The Erin Brockovich Bypass.
    In the midst of a global climate emergency, to use lingo Huffman could probably understand, CalTrans has appropriated roughly $300 million to move 5,000-10,000 cars a day around Willits, when the same task could have been easily accomplished for a fraction of the cost. Now, somehow, concern for taxpayers’ bank accounts appears on-stage during one of the final acts.
    Regarding the notion that there were previous opportunities for “public input,” Orwell wrote in 1984, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” If you want a picture of the present, imagine a government regulator sitting behind a name plate, wearing a plastic smile and saying in a nasally voice, “Thank you for sharing!”
    It stands to reason that Huffman’s friends in the Democratic Party appointed him to lead environmental committees. He is, after all, very adept at sponsoring environmental legislation that avoids discomfiting the wealthy and powerful.
    Huffman helped save Hendy Woods? Please. Hendy Woods was saved by locals and by the Sacramento Bee’s disclosure of the $55 million slush fund the Parks Department was sitting on, which Huffman never demanded be spent on keeping parks open.

  4. Peter Warner July 22, 2014

    John Sakowicz has issued a shallow, worn-out apology for status quo capitalism-driven environmental pillage and destruction. Oh, take it easy on Jared Huffman, who is nothing more than another “environmentalist” totem in a a choreographed political charade fronting as democracy — he’s extremely capable of one thing: toeing the line for the corporate-beholden Democratic Party, who sports Mike Thompson as one of its most loathsome gratuitous cowards (how’s that NAFTA thing working out, Mike – you and your “free market” politics should carry you straight to hell). Really, why should anyone take it easy on any politician – they all serve the masters who are the enemies of people and the earth? What about taking it easy on the ecosystems upon which life depends? Talk about sheer stupidity and servile capitulation to economic power, Sakowicz!

    Defending the likes of hypocritical political opportunists takes a deliberately myopic perspective of current environmental reality — all the pretentious accolades for Huffman cited by Sakowicz don’t amount to a pile of dung towards ecological sanity. Instead, we get lies piled upon lies layered upon corporate destruction and bureaucratic obfuscation and political deceit just so that the almighty dollar can continue to reign in the land of the free to buy.

    So what is it about the “constituency” Sakowicz cites that doesn’t understand what the destruction of an aquifer means? How much more opportunity for education is needed in order for humans, and especially over-privileged, consumptively besotted Americans, to understand that continued reliance on fossil fuels — and hence more highways, more fracking, more pollution, more cancers, more wars — is a collective death sentence? How much more human ecological ignorance can a single planet tolerate — or more aptly, how much further ruin of its own nest can humanity survive? In light of the cascading environmental catastrophes that threaten human beings, let alone all sorts of other species and ecological processes upon which life depends, how is it that rankly stupid humans like Huffman, Thompson, Sakowicz, Obama — all Republican and Democratic corporatists for that matter — still are trusted or believed at all? These charlatans only act on behalf of a contrived economic system that is dooming the ecological conditions upon which human life can be sustained. The despicable lies being told again and again by corporations, big government, and their political hucksters are simply rotten — composting fertilizer for a long overdue revolution based on ecological sustainability.

  5. pca67 July 23, 2014

    Jared Huffman represents everything wrong with politics in our country. He’s supposedly “liberal”/”progressive” with a strong environmental background, but when push comes to shove, he’s lacks a spine. Politicians like Huffman always play both sides, and always side with business interests and developers. Look at who funds his campaigns.

    What’s really pathetic is he represents a solidly Democratic district where he has a real opportunity to go out on a limb and fight for the environment and working people. The problem is he lacks a moral center and, thus, we are stuck with the typical milquetoast politician.

    No wonder Congress has a 7% approval rating.

    • Pete July 24, 2014

      He represents the North Coast, I voted for him, and let’s get the damn job done.

      • pca67 July 24, 2014

        OK, “Pete.”

      • Gregory Wonderwheel August 27, 2014

        The problem is not getting it done, but how it is getting done. Hawaii had an environmental problem building the Interstate H-3 and used elevated viaduct and invented a new way to connect between the piers using cantilevers so they did not have to destroy the vegetation and terrain beneath.
        Cal Trans could have thought outside the box to do something special in this environment instead of using the same old environment destroying techniques.

  6. jim stoops August 27, 2014

    How can we stop This??

  7. Don Lipmanson August 28, 2014

    If filling of Willits wetlands provokes civil disobedience, I’ll be happy to give arrestees pro bono criminal defense in Ukiah. Given the environmental harm from needless filling of wetlands plus Caltrans’ reputation for doing the wrong work poorly, arrested protestors should find enough open-minded people in the jury pool to get a fair trial in the unlikely event it comes to that.

    Don Lipmanson, Attorney

  8. Marin Voter September 2, 2014

    Fiddlesticks! Jared Huffman has gotten where he is by means of expediency. He’ll support and vote for whatever furthers his own agenda, take it from one who has watched his career from his first elected position.
    The rule on Capitol Hill is “go along to get along” and Mr. Huffman is exceedingly able at that game.

  9. christmas leubrie September 2, 2014

    I am outraged that Jared Huffman went to the dark side and let $$$$ dictate what should have been an obvious and easy choice to support and protect our environment. His support of the Willits Bypass to the destruction of these wetlands exposed his true values. we need to elect people who are visionary enough to prioritize our future, imagine other environment protecting strategies which protect our endangered world instead of short term profit$$$$$. I will definitely be looking for someone else for/in the next election. They only listen when we vote them out when they do awful stuff like this.
    Don’t agonize, organize!!!
    Be the future you want to see, christmas leubrie

  10. melinda leithold September 2, 2014

    Huffman: ” Too much huff; not enough man”
    a friend will print up this for bumper sticker.
    A politician of Huffman’s ilk will always look first to the money….Wealthy “environmentalists” will swallow any line of bull when expedient. It’s a corporate mindset and indeed points to a major flaw in our system of capitalism….It ain’t democracy nor is it intelligent.

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