Bitterroot Valley activists trying to put the brakes on Highway 93 expansion plans have been dealt an adverse blow by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Friends of the Bitterroot and the Highway 93 Citizens’ Coalition for Responsible Planning learned this week that a March decision by Missoula U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy on highway planning was upheld 2-1 by an appeals court panel on Nov. 30. The groups, arguing that the Montana Department of Transportation failed to adequately consider the growth impacts of the highway between Lolo and Hamilton, wanted Molloy’s decision overturned.
Among other issues, the lawsuit alleges the state didn’t consider a full range of alternatives and cumulative impacts while developing the document, failed to adequately analyze safety factors, and failed to address potential impacts on air quality in the Missoula Valley. A primary contention is that highway expansion, as envisioned by state officials, will fuel a new explosion of uncontrolled residential and commercial growth.
“We thought we had a pretty good case,” says Peter Moore, executive director of the citizens’ coalition, adding that the legal setback is not a life-threatening blow.
“People in this valley and everywhere are realizing that they have the power to influence, through their involvement, positive changes in their communities,” Moore says. “If nothing else, this process has stirred up that awareness and the results are most heartening.”
Meanwhile, progress on highway improvements is apparently being made on the Flathead Indian Reservation, where state, federal and tribal officials have recently started talking again.
In 1996, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council unanimously voted against state plans to widen 93 to four and five lanes between Evaro and Polson. The tribes, backed by the nonprofit Flathead Resource Organization, instead put their support behind a so-called “Super Two” proposal that would expand the highway, but not to the extent the state wants. Both proposals were listed as “preferred” alternatives when the state released its environmental impact statement (EIS) on the project later the same year.
Negotiations over reservation highway expansion were halted in 1997, but private tribal meetings with transportation officials started up again this summer. A second meeting, which was also closed to the public, took place Nov. 9 in Polson.
“Any alternative in the EIS is still on the table, and any one chosen can still be constructed,” Federal Highway Administration division director Dale Paulson of Helena says.
By forcing the state to look at alternatives, some on the Flathead, like their compatriots down the Bitterroot, see the effort itself as noteworthy. “If it wasn’t for the tribes, the four-lane would be built,” notes Flathead Resource Organization executive director Tom Smith of Charlo. “The tribes have shown great courage and vision.”