Free Trade in the Fast Lane 

Highway 93, the treacherous snake of asphalt that bisects Western Montana, occupies a special place in local lore. Dozens of trinket specialists have cashed in on the popular "I DRIVE 93...PRAY FOR ME" genre of bumper stickers, a tribute to the widow-making road's renowned danger. For the dozens of small towns strung along the road north and south of Missoula, 93 is life's main street, the best way from A to B.

The highway is also a political sticking point. Widening the road, which is two lanes for most of its length, would theoretically make it safer, but debate over how wide it should be, and over the environmental and social impacts of the change, have lead to the creation of citizens' groups determined to put their stamp on the road's future.

Now, the Montana Senate wants the federal government to designate the northern half of 93, which runs from the border hamlet of Roosville through the heart of the Flathead Reservation and on to Missoula, as a special trade corridor under the North American Free Trade Agreement. Environmentalists and tribal elders vehemently oppose this measure, which they fear could lead to a loss of local control over the highway's future.

And even though the Senate overwhelmingly endorsed the plan, the brainchild of Chinook Democrat Greg Jergeson, just before the Legislature's midterm break, the state Department of Transportation isn't sure what to make of it, either.

The resolution, supported by a broad, bipartisan coalition, seeks to turn some of Montana's often desolate rural highways into trade routes pulsing with wealth from Canada and Mexico. Highway 93 is the American section of one of the continent's longest continuous roads, and as such seems a natural choice.

Legislators want to bring NAFTA to US 93, but some say that’s a road to nowhere.
Photo by Chris Harder

However, the road was included in the Senate resolution at the last minute. Then, in another late change, the southern section of the road was dropped, leaving only the northern stretch in the final version passed to the House. The resolution simply directs the transportation department to lobby on behalf of a number of Montana highways, and no one seems to know for sure how realistic a hope that is.

"I'm not in any position to judge the condition of that road," says Jergeson. "I'm looking at this from the point of view of someone who lives on Highway 2 [which runs east-west through northern Montana]. It's a matter of trying to help some of those small towns that don't see a lot of commerce coming through."

Jergeson says 93 was added to the resolution at the behest of Senator Bob Depratu, a Republican from Whitefish. Depratu's efforts to stimulate northwest Montana's economy don't sit well with some of his constituents, particularly Native Americans and environmentalists, some of whom worry that dragging NAFTA into the 93 quagmire might rob those who live on the road of a voice in its redesign.

"The overall gist of NAFTA seems to be to reduce local control over economic destinies," says Tom Smith of the Flathead Resource Organization (FRO), a 20-year-old activist group that includes both Indians and non-native reservation dwellers. "We're in the midst of painstaking work ... to find a solution to the problems of 93 that doesn't result in the Californication of Montana. This resolution goes in the opposite direction by trying to put the issue in the hands of the feds."

Smith says FRO is particularly worried about the possibility of 93 being expanded to four lanes to accommodate huge semis, and about the specter of commercial sprawl along an expanded road. He says he fears such a dramatic change could undermine an already endangered Native American culture on the Flathead Reservation, a concern echoed by Tony Incashola of the tribes' Cultural Committee.

"Anytime anybody infringes on anything, it's bound to destroy or alter it," Incashola says. "Native Americans have been compromising for 500 years, and you can see what so-called progress has done for Native American culture so far."

According to Sandy Straehl, the DOT staffer who will likely have to lobby the federal government on behalf on the would-be trade corridors if the resolution passes, says that Incashola and others might not have anything to fear from NAFTA. She's not sure any of the highways named in the measure can win free-trade perks.

"This is a sort of strange bill," Straehl says. "All it means is these highways will compete for designation. It doesn't mean they'll get it. We have to show there's been a huge increase in traffic or a huge increase in the value of goods transported along these routes as a result of NAFTA. I'm not sure how we're going to show that."

While Straehl adds that NAFTA contains no specific design criteria for designated corridors, Smith says he worries that mere wishful thinking about NAFTA might be enough to derail the grassroots effort to plan 93.

"They might put four lanes in here and not get NAFTA designation," he says. "Then we'd be stuck with all the problems and none of the benefits."

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