Section 4(f) Case Study: Flathead Indian Reservation and US-93
Montana| Posted: 11/01/2005
The Flathead Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana is filled with the kind of scenery that has made the region famous -- prairies and mountains, lakes and rivers, small towns and family farms. What`s missing, thanks to Section 4f, is a four-lane undivided highway that would have ripped through the landscape and the lives of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes who have lived in the area for centuries.
By the 1980s, it was clear that US 93, which heads north from Missoula through the Flathead Reservation, needed improvement. The Montana Department of Transportation argued for 56 miles of four- (and sometimes five-) lane highway, a plan that promised widespread damage: it would have disrupted the habitat of endangered species, including grizzly bears and bald eagles; opened the reservation to sprawl development; separated the small towns along its route; and, most important, threatened the cultural survival of the two tribes. The risk was so great that the National Trust put the Flathead Indian Reservation on its 1997 list of America`s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places and worked with the tribes and local environmental groups on alternative proposals that made the highway safer but far less disruptive.
The fight over US 93 continued for more than a decade. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes convinced the Federal Highway Administration that the Montana DOT had not met Section 4(f)`s requirement that planners protect historic and natural resources, a failure that blocked federal funding. Finally, in 1998, Montana DOT and the Tribes adopted a new approach, seeking consensus on the project`s design in order to minimize impacts to cultural and aesthetic values.
Late in 2000, the Federal Highway Administration, the Montana DOT and the Tribal Council signed a Memorandum of Agreement that laid out concepts for how the highway alignment would be developed, how traffic would be managed, and how the area`s people, heritage, and environment would be protected. Montana has since become a leader in the use of context-sensitive design techniques and in bold approaches to public involvement in decision-making. In all likelihood, that community-minded reorientation would never have occurred without Section 4(f).