Question: When is a highway more than just a highway?
Answer: Whenever it’s proposed to be expanded in the Wood River Valley, because the ensuing debate will wrestle with two of the biggest dilemmas confronting humanity—pollution and environmental degradation.
That was certainly the case in the early 1970s, when rumors surfaced that the state highway department planned to expand Highway 75 (then called Highway 93) to four lanes from Timmerman Hill to north of Ketchum. Those rumors were quickly confirmed, and the designs showed a freeway configuration more suited for Southern California suburbs.
Opposition from residents was swift and overwhelming. A petition opposing the highway expansion garnered thousands of signatures.
The fervor crested at two public hearings, one in Ketchum and one in Hailey, in front of the highway board in April 1974. Five-hundred residents attended and only two people spoke in favor of the proposal.
“If there were federal funds available for free poison, would you eat it?” one resident asked, according to the Ketchum Tomorrow newspaper.
“The answer to our transportation problems here will not be solved by following California’s example,” another resident said.
“We all have a duty to end this love affair with the machine,” said another.
The highway board was convinced and killed the project. In 1982, ITD’s director said expanding Highway 75 was on a 40-year wait list for funding. He was partly correct—the highway would not expand to four lanes until the mid-2000s.
In the 1970s, some opponents worried that the highway configuration would mar the pristine views of the valley’s natural environment. Others feared the widened thoroughfare would usher in a new real estate development craze.
Still others presciently focused on the pollution emitted by automobile tailpipes.
“One scientist has called human beings the most endangered species on earth today, giving them less than a half century to live unless people can change their policies,” the Ketchum Tomorrow newspaper stated in a story about the expanded highway in August 1972. “The U.S., which is celebrating its 200th birthday in less than four years, should ask itself a question: Will our grandchildren and great-grandchildren be able to blow out the 300 candles at the next centennial?”
Almost 50 years later, it’s clear that humanity is not imminently threatened with extinction. But, as a United Nations report concluded earlier this month, as many as 1 million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction.
“Global warming has become a major driver of wildlife decline, the assessment found, by shifting or shrinking the local climates that many mammals, birds, insects, fish and plants evolved to survive in,” The New York Times reported on May 6. “When combined with the other ways humans are damaging the environment, climate change is now pushing a growing number of species … closer to extinction.”
Earth’s atmosphere had a mean measurement of 327.34 parts per million of carbon dioxide in 1972, according to data from NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. This month, atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels surpassed 415 parts per million for the first time in human history.
I will revise the Tomorrow’s question for 2019: What kind of planet will our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren inhabit when they celebrate America’s tricentennial in 2076?