U.S. Highway 93 North (U.S. 93N) is one of Montana’s most heavily used roads for commercial, recreational, and local traffic; and one of the most beautiful. It cuts across the Mission Valley at the base of the Mission Mountains, an area with designated wilderness and grizzly bear habitat. But until recently the highway was also considered one of the state’s most dangerous. In late 1989 the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) proposed a plan to address safety concerns by expanding U.S. 93N to a four-lane highway. This expansion would run through the Flathead Indian Reservation, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). And as a sovereign nation, the CSKT had concerns.
Adding Lanes Won’t Solve the ProblemExpanding the highway wouldn’t just add lanes, tribal members pointed out, it would also encourage higher speeds. And higher speeds would increase the number of animals killed by speeding traffic — a safety issue for wildlife and motorists alike. Wildlife and the places they feed, mate, give birth, and travel hold considerable meaning for the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille people. Tribal biologist Dale Becker was quoted in Sierra magazine saying, “Big-game species provide important subsistence for a lot of families. And the grizzly bear and gray wolf are revered as part of our culture.” The CSKT also voiced concern that a four-lane highway would literally bisect communities, increase land development and population growth in the area, and negatively affect natural and recreational resources. Both MDT and CSKT agreed that safety issues needed to be addressed, but the size and configuration of the highway reconstruction and the associated impacts continued to be sticking points. The expansion project stalled for a decade.
A Radical Approach: Spirit of PlaceIn March 2000, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), MDT, and CSKT met and established a tri-governmental team to reach an agreement. From that process came a radical idea: instead of focusing on how the road will impact the land, focus on how the land should shape the road. The team called this approach a “Spirit of Place.” The Spirit of Place constitutes more than just the road, it takes into account the surrounding mountains, plains, hills, forests, valleys, and sky. It includes the paths of waters, glaciers, winds, plants, animals, and native people — the whole continuum of what is seen, touched, felt, and traveled through. The design of the roadway would be premised on the idea that the road is a visitor and should respond to and respect the Spirit of Place. The design team, which included landscape architecture firm Jones & Jones, spent significant time exploring the land, talking to tribal leaders, and performing analyses. They determined that the Spirit of Place approach allowed for many benefits, some of which included:
- Replacing old straight-aways with soft and continuous transition curves to naturally increase spacing between vehicles and eliminate traffic line-ups.
- Adding intermittently spaced passing lanes that would not only reduce construction and environmental costs by minimizing the highway’s footprint, but would also make most of the road realignments possible without altering the existing right-of-way.
- Posting signage that recognized the unique and diverse nature of the surrounding communities.