Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Highway heritage vs. the fossil fuel industry

As a counter-balance to the purely celebratory uses of automotive heritage that I wrote about in my last post, here's an example of using heritage designation in much more activist and critical ways. Calling themselves "The Rural People of Highway 12," a coalition centered in Idaho is using Route 12's various scenic and historic designations as key tools in their fight against the growing numbers of oil companies using the road to haul half-million pound "megaloads" of drilling equipment north to the expanding tar sands oil fields in Alberta.

Started in the 1920s, Route 12 was originally intended as a freeway running between downtown Detroit and Madison, Wisconsin. It was extended to Yellowstone National Park in 1939, and then absorbed into the Interstate system starting in the 1950s. By 1969, it reached its terminus on the coast of Washington state. 

Like Mass. Route 2, the road I'm currently studying, it's one of those highways that's been overlaid with various heritage designations in recent years.  It's the paved spine of a number of scenic, historic, and recreational routes:  the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway (designated as a byway in 2002 and as an All-American Road in 2005), part of the TransAmerica Bicycle Route (itself something of a historic site, having been created as part of the "Bikecentennial" in the 1970s), a couple of Wild and Scenic River corridors, and parts of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.  According to the Rural People website, Motorcycle Magazine called it the best recreational motorcycle route in the nation ("many curves, much beauty" notes the website).

The Rural People of Route 12 see themselves as David fighting Goliath, and when you go up against the fossil fuel industry, that's pretty much the size of it (as Tim DeChristopher just discovered in Utah after disrupting a federal auction of oil and gas leases in that state).  Heritage designations, like historic preservation laws, can seem like very puny weapons in that kind of fight, as the same urgent drive toward automobility that created Route 12 in the first place continues to push us to keep feeding our petroleum habit despite the increasing evidence of how ultimately suicidal this is. Most of these designations themselves are intended to draw visitors to the region, and nearly all of those visitors are going to be arriving in some kind of two- or four-wheeled vehicle.

So it's a paradoxical strategy at best.  But it's a strategy, and it seems much more intelligent than celebrating automobility in a more simple-minded way.  Tar Sands Action's planned late-summer civil disobedience campaign in Washington, DC is a more direct and potentially consequential kind of action, and I hope we start to see more and more serious protests (including from my surprisingly quiescent Canadian compatriots) against this environmentally ruinous plan of extracting the oil in the Alberta tar sands.  If highway heritage can play any role in all of that, it's all to the good.