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Devil's Slide Was No Tunnel of Love

The first responsibility of a physician is to do no harm. The first responsibility of an environmentalist is never to accept a dumb solution to a problem when a better solution is available.

Case in point: Devil’s Slide south of San Francisco, a stretch of Highway 1 that would crumble into the Pacific every 10 years or so during a big storm. Rebuilding was time-consuming and expensive. The state of California sought a more permanent solution—and seized on one that ignited two decades of opposition resolved only when a doughty Earthjustice attorney finally stepped in.

The state decided to build a thinly disguised freeway project that would slash through remote and scenic hills and meadows. The Sierra Club and the Committee for Green Foothills opposed the idea, arguing for a tunnel. The organizations stalled the project for a dozen years with a lawsuit, but in 1983 another washout occurred and the state suggested trying to settle the case.

At this point the opposition, including the Sierra Club, began to waver. Their attorney urged settling. The state offered to build a six-lane-wide right-of-way through what had by this time become a state park; four lanes would be paved, and only three lanes painted with lane stripes, a non-solution if there ever was one. The county supervisors approved the project, as did the Coastal Commission, the state and the local political delegation.

But by this time attorney Bill Curtiss of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now Earthjustice) had been brought into the case to represent the club, the committee and other opponents.

Lennie Roberts of the committee and a staunch proponent of the tunnel remembers:

At that critical moment, some of the leaders of the local Sierra Club Chapter wanted to settle, as they felt too much time and energy had been devoted to this battle. Bill came down to the chapter meeting and informed them that this litigation was a matter of national importance, and the national board would be making the final decision.

The fight certainly would have been lost right then and there if Bill hadn't stiffened those backbones.

The legal wrangling continued for another decade, with two trips by Curtiss to the federal appeals court along the way. Each time the state was blocked.

Finally, in the mid ‘90s, county voters passed an initiative to amend the coastal plan to provide for the tunnel. Designing and building the tunnel took another 15 years, but finally this year the job was done and dozens of people turned out for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to congratulate each other on completion of a project many of them had opposed.

The moral: the earth needs a good lawyer … like Bill Curtiss.

Tags:  Public Lands