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Addressing the Quiet Crisis:

Origins of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969

One option not available is to disassociate and insulate our activities from the sweep of events in America today. To pretend otherwise would be the depth of self-delusion.Lowell K. Bridwell
Federal Highway Administrator
December 1968

The Sixties

When historians give a nickname to a decade, such as the Roaring 20's, the nickname usually doesn't apply from the first day of the decade to the last. That is the case with "The Sixties." That nickname evokes images and ideas that evolved during the decade.

Perhaps, "The Sixties" began with the shock, sadness, and outrage following the death of President John F. Kennedy. On November 22, 1963, the American people lost, or may have lost, their faith that the United States was a Nation under vigorous leadership marching toward a New Frontier, as Kennedy had called it. Instead, the Nation was engaged in a complex detective story-who really killed the President?-with no quick end in sight. The search for the truth would contribute to a growing sense that our leaders cannot be trusted.

Or perhaps "The Sixties" began, less than 3 months after the assassination, when the Beatles appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on February 9, 1964, and two succeeding Sundays, their first live television performances in the United States. The appearances continued rock and roll's assault on the generational divide that had begun when Elvis Presley appeared on the same show on October 28, 1956, demonstrating to millions of teenagers that their parents were not reliable music critics. Just as Paul Anka, Pat Boone, Bobby Rydell, and other crooners were undermining the rebellious heart of rock and roll, the Beatles and the "British Invasion" not only transformed rock and roll into rock, but unleashed a youth earthquake of long hair, strange clothes, and alienation from adult culture.

Terry Anderson, in his book The Sixties, quoted an unnamed government official as saying in late 1969, "Everything is being attacked." He quoted an observer as saying, "Flower Power is as revolutionary as Black Power, and after it America will never be the same again." That was true. America would never be the same. [Anderson, Terry, The Sixties, Longman, 1999, p. 149-150]

When the 1960s became "The Sixties" may be unclear, but for some, the mantra of the Sixties has been condensed to the phrase "peace, love, and understanding." (The phrase is from a 1974 Nick Lowe song titled "(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," popularized by Elvis Costello and the Attractions.) By contrast, Life magazine referred to the 1960s in December 1969 as "The Decade of Tumult and Change." As these extremes suggest, America would not return to the traditional ideas of the can-do 1950's, but it also would not become the utopian world of "peace, love, and understanding" that the counter-culture envisioned.

Of the two characterizations, Life 's epithet was the one that can best be applied to the Interstate System. Construction continued at a fast pace on the new highways-a total of 31,500 miles of the 42,500 miles then planned, or 74 percent, had opened to traffic by the end of 1970, with another 4,183 miles under construction. The Interstate System had become an integral part of the American Way of Life, but the image of the Interstate System never recovered from the Sixties. The ideas that informed the decade-such as stewardship of the environment, guarantee of civil rights, expansion of the role of women, and the questioning of authority-meant that no amount of public relations and optimistic predictions about highways without stoplights could overcome the negative image the Interstate System received during its first years. There would be neither peace nor love for the Interstate System, and little understanding.

One Brave Woman

A turning point occurred in September 1962 with the publication of a book, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, that had nothing to do with the Interstate System. Carson, a marine biologist and retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, had published several earlier books to supplement her government income, including the bestselling The Sea Around Us (1951). In 1958, Carson began researching the effect of new technologies on the planet's life-support systems, with a focus on the effect of chemicals such as DDT on wildlife. She knew she would have to reach beyond the specialists ("a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories") and who had a vested interest in disputing her findings. Therefore, she wrote Silent Spring as an ecology primer for a mass audience, but also a scientific work documented with a 55-page appendix of principal sources.

Silent Spring was an immediate international best seller. As expected, the chemical industry and its allies attacked Carson and her book. Harvard Medical School accused her of "abandoning scientific truth for exaggeration" while the director of research for a pesticide manufacturer called her a "fanatical defender of natural balance." Some of the attacks were personal. Former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson (1953-1961) wondered "why a spinster with no children was so concerned about genetics" and dismissed her as "probably a Communist."

Carson's book, with its extensive documentation, overcame the critics, especially after President Kennedy's Science Advisory Committee reviewed her research and vindicated her thesis. [Udall, Stewart L., "How the Wilderness Was Won," American Heritage, February/March 2000, p.104-105] She also benefited from a CBS Reports television special, "The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson," on April 3, 1963. Her calm demeanor, in contrast to critics who also appeared on the program, won the confidence of the estimated 10-15 million viewers.

The history of environmental activism goes back a century in the form of the conservation movement, first popularized by President Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909). The idea was to set aside some of our natural resources so they would not be depleted by human activities that could use any resources not within the protected circle. After Carson, we increasingly thought of "the environment" as encompassing more than just the nature we would travel great distances to see, such as National Parks. The environment was something we could damage by our choices, our actions, and our technology.

Carson wrote to a friend that, "It would be unrealistic to believe one book could bring a complete change." However, her book would do nearly that. People began to understand that the environment was a limited resource that could be damaged, even destroyed, by the careless actions of thoughtless people. Although Carson's book indicted the chemical industry, people soon realized that many other once-trusted elements of society were just as guilty. The only answer was government intervention. This "quiet crisis," as Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall called it in 1963, would require a "new conservationist" in the form of ecologists, botanists, and biologists, among other specialists.

The quiet crisis would soon affect many aspects of national life, including highway building. In the pre-Interstate years, most road construction took place in or near the existing right-of-way, usually with the enthusiastic support of State and local officials as well as the public. During the Interstate System's first 10 years of rapid growth, with much of the construction on new right-of-way, controversies became common on such subjects as impacts on businesses and towns that were bypassed, acquisition of homes and businesses, and the growing concerns about the effect of the Interstates on urban areas. The U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) and the State highway agencies faced many problems, but selecting a route or design to protect the environment had never been one of them. Rather, road builders sought the best routing to provide traffic service at the lowest cost with the least disruption to homes and businesses.

For the Interstate System, the "quiet crisis" in the post-Silent Spring world would soon become another concern that highway engineers had not anticipated.

Less than a year after Silent Spring, the BPR announced on August 26, 1963, that beginning January 1, 1964, the States would be required to certify, for each Federal-aid highway project, that they had considered its possible effects on fish and wildlife resources. In discussing this change, Federal Highway Administrator Rex M. Whitton (1961-1966) told a conference of park and recreational area organizations that their attacks on highway administrators were sometimes less than fair. "We do not seek to despoil the countryside." He added, "But our responsibility, usually spelled out in law, is to spend the highway user's dollar wisely." The requirement to consider fish and wildlife resources demonstrated that "we do not have closed or calloused minds."

Although Whitton presented the initiative as a "conservation" measure, it was one of many steps the highway engineers would take, willingly in some cases, not so willingly in others, in the wake of Silent Spring. The highway builders would have to adjust to an evolving public awareness that meeting transportation needs had environmental consequences that should be considered along with congestion relief, economic development, safety, and other traditional factors.

While researching Silent Spring, Rachel Carson also was fighting cancer. She died of cancer on April 15, 1964, at her home in Silver Spring, Maryland, at the age of 56. In 1999, Time magazine included her in the Time 100-the Most Important People of the Century, saying, "Before there was an environmental movement, there was one brave woman and her very brave book."

The Quiet Crisis

In the wake of Silent Spring, the "conservation" movement gradually became the "environmental" movement. It took some time for the highway program and other government programs to adopt the new perspective, and that time happened to span the most active decade of the Interstate era.

Initially, highway engineers were convinced the opposition came from irrational idealists, misguided citizens, and weak political leaders who didn't understand the benefits the new highways would bring, as well as a hypocritical media that stirred up controversy to sell newspapers. The engineers believed that once the public began using the growing Interstate network, they would understand how much better life could be if only the engineers finished the job. For example, Federal Highway Administrator Bertram D. Tallamy (1957-1961) told an audience of urban officials, planners, theoreticians, and critics in September 1957 that he was confident that those who criticized the program the most at the start would "probably be pushing the real supporters of the program in the background at the finish so they can cut the ribbons and take the credit they do not deserve." [Tallamy, Bertram D., "Highways to the Future," Symposium on "The New Highways: Challenge to the Metropolitan Region," Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, September 9, 1957]

Highway officials believed the problems could be solved by better public relations, such as clearer explanations at public hearings, which were intended to inform the public of plans, not receive public comments on them for consideration. The highway community also reached out to newspapers, radio, and television to convey the wonders the Interstate System would bring when it was completed. (See "The Fight of Its Life" in the May-June 2006 issue of Public Roads for more details on this initiative. https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/publicroads/06may/05.cfm.)

The highway engineers soon found that the common saying "You can't fight City Hall" was no longer true. At the start of the decade, residents and business owners in the path of the new highways fought as best they could - attended City Council meetings, wrote letters to the editor, submitted petitions, and often gave up after realizing they couldn't stop progress. Robert Moses of New York City came to personify the image of autocratic urban public works figures, ignoring critics as if they were so many pesky gnats, but cities around the country had variations on the theme in an era when the political Bosses who had dominated cities for decades were in their last era before fading from the scene. (Tallamy had worked with Moses in New York, a background that made him singularly unable to adapt to the criticisms coming his way during the early years of Interstate construction.)

Anti-highway people were still isolated in their separate battles to preserve their homes and businesses from the specific Interstate that threatened them. Even as BPR and the State highway agencies rushed to complete the Interstates by the early 1970's as Congress had provided for in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, other movements were underway, particularly the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War protests that would show highway opponents how to adapt to "fight City Hall" more effectively. Networks of project opponents formed and information was shared, while marches and picketing increased. They joined with the growing environmental movement to enact laws that would help them fight the highways they opposed.

The protests against the Vietnam War undermined faith in government as well as in America's belief in itself as essentially good. The Civil Rights Movement forced Americans to alter not only their actions but long-held views that had been at the core of their view of themselves and their country. The view that the government was lying, couldn't be trusted, and wanted to suppress protest became part of the cynical mindset of the era. The journalistic muckrakers of the early 20th century were reborn as consumer advocates telling Americans that everything was bad for them, including the highways and motor vehicles that had become an integral part of the American lifestyle.

Adapting to a New Era

Amid the cultural, political, and social changes in the 1960's, the environment emerged as a new front in the war between the can-do American attitude of one generation and the not-worth-doing attitude of many of their children. Rejecting the urban and industrial world built by earlier generations, the counterculture young launched a "back to the land" movement that took them to communal farms idealized as returning to nature where they could be "free." Terry Anderson summarized the consequences:

Some communes lasted weeks, others lasted years, some still exist. At most of them, however, life was much more difficult than hippies imagined when they left the city: "I remember having soybeans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and nothing else," recalled Cynthia Bates of The Farm. "Having kids made you more sensitive to the lack of necessities . . . how long could you live in a house with fifty other people?" Especially a house with no running water, no flush toilet, no electricity. After a while, many began to ask: what's the point? [Anderson, p. 151]

Even as the counterculture learned why so many people had abandoned life on farms, "a crisis in environmental quality approached," as Professor J. Brooks Flippen has written. Gradually, the larger culture-politicians, academia, and the media, including the entertainment media-began to accept the reality of the crisis:

Environmental degradation-whether a messy oil spill on pristine beaches or mountains of rusted automobiles taller than nearby buildings-executives now realized, made great copy for television. The National Advertising Council released a poignant commercial [in 1971] that depicted an American Indian looking out over a littered landscape, a tear rolling down his cheek. [Flippen, J. Brooks, Conservative Conservationist: Russell E. Train and the Emergence of American Environmentalism, Louisiana State University Press, 2006, p. 55]

Walt Kelly's classic comic strip Pogo boiled the growing sentiment down to a catchphrase by depicting the possum Pogo and his friend Porky Pine walking through a forest littered with debris. Pogo commented, "we have met the enemy and he is us." (Kelly first used the phrase on an Earth Day 1970 poster depicting Pogo shocked while looking in a mirror; Kelly incorporated the phrase into his strip the following year.)

As the 1960's progressed, the BPR and its successor in 1967, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), adapted to the new environmental consciousness. In past decades, FHWA and its State partners assumed they were providing a popular public service; the primary complaint was that they weren't providing paved roads fast enough. Under these circumstances, highway engineers proceeded with the preliminary phase known as "location" with regard only to factors related to road service. FHWA's Bicentennial history, America's Highways 1776-1976, discussed this phase:

During the early years of highway development, the emphasis was almost exclusively on the engineering features of such location. Unless the highway was solely a land service facility, the highway agency attempted to find the most direct lines between the points that they wanted to serve and to develop the most economical way, in engineering terms, of building adequate roads along these direct lines. They sought easy grades, the shortest possible river crossings, and generally adopted the lowest priced adequate solution that could be found ...
Beginning about 1950 and rapidly developing in importance since that time, sociological and economic impacts on communities have become the principal and often overriding factors in the location selection process . . . . The highway location problems now are to find those places to build the roads that will provide an adequate highway facility for the particular traffic to be served and, at the same time, cause a minimal disruption of facilities, a minimum disturbance of the landscape, and the least adverse effect on such things as established school districts, church parishes, park areas and historical sites. [America's Highways, Federal Highway Administration, 1976, p. 365-366]

The elements of what today we think of as the "environment" or "ecosystem" were simply obstacles, like mountains or rivers, to be overcome with the best engineering skills and construction equipment available to the era.

In 1962, BPR combined two related functions by establishing an Office of Right-of-Way and Location, separating these functions from the engineering staff. This was a key step because, as America's Highways 1776-1976 put it, location decisions "resulted in many hardships to the property owners for, too often, little consideration was given to their needs and the needs of the community as a whole":

A trial attorney once remarked that it appeared to him that the engineers' procedure was first to find a farmer's water supply and then make that the centerline of the highway. While this judgment is harsh, it is clear all too often that a little consideration of right-of-way costs and damages at the location stage could have materially lowered the cost of right-of-way and of the total highway project. [America's Highways, p. 365]

Two years later, BPR took a further step to adjust to the demand for increased attention to social, economic, and environmental factors:

[In] 1964, the Bureau issued a directive emphasizing the need for full consideration of all reasonable alternative alinements and listing approximately 20 social, economic, and environmental factors to be studied and evaluated, if applicable, in the process of investigating alternatives. [America's Highways, p. 372]

The phrase "social, economic, and environmental" became so common that its abbreviation became a standard part of road building jargon: SEE.

A further effort to separate location decisions from engineering occurred on June 7, 1968, when Secretary of Transportation Alan S. Boyd announced creation of an Environmental Development Division within the Office of Right-of-Way and Location. The new office was intended to guarantee full consideration of environmental factors in the location, design, and construction of freeways. It was staffed with architects, economists, landscape architects, sociologists, urban planners - and highway engineers. They would develop standards for evaluating the economic, social, aesthetic, cultural, and environmental factors that must be weighed in selecting a highway route.

The organizational change reflected statutory changes establishing responsibilities that highway engineers were not trained to undertake. For example, under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, any project affecting a historic site was to be referred to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation for review and comment. That same year, the Department of Transportation Act of 1966, the legislation that created the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), contained a key environmental provision known as Section 4(f), which stated:

After the effective date of this Act, the Secretary shall not approve any program or project which requires the use of any land from a public park, recreation area, wildlife and waterfowl refuge, or historic site unless (1) there is no feasible and prudent alternative to the use of such land, and (2) such program includes all possible planning to minimize harm to such park, recreational area, wildlife and waterfowl refuge, or historic site resulting from such use.

Senator Ralph Yarborough (D-Tx) had introduced this provision in response to a State plan for a U.S. 281 freeway linking downtown San Antonio with its international airport. Because highway planners saw the use of parkland as less disruptive than the taking of homes and businesses, they routed the road through Brackenridge-Olmos Basin Parklands as the best of several disruptive alternatives. Opponents wanted to preserve the parkland.

The Senator had tried to get a similar provision into the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1966, which was approved September 13, 1966, but it included a watered down version as Section 138 of Title 23 ("Highways"), United States Code (U.S.C.). New Section 138 called for "cooperation" and "consideration" rather than explicit defense of the resources Senator Yarborough wanted to protect. Section 18 of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1968, approved August 23, 1968, amended Section 138 by substituting the language of Section 4(f).

(Although Section 138, as amended, is not part of the DOT Act, the "feasible and prudent" provision is still referred to as "Section 4(f)." For additional information on the origins of Section 4(f), see https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/50section4f.cfm.)

Another provision of the 1968 Act addressed the growing concern about the effects of routing highways through or around urban areas. Section 24 ("Urban Impact Amendment") amended 23 U.S.C. 128 ("Public hearings") to contain an additional consideration:

Any State highway department which submits plans for a Federal-aid highway project involving the bypassing of, or going through, any city, town, or village . . . shall certify to the Secretary that it has had public hearings, or has afforded the opportunity for such hearings, and has considered the economic and social effects of such a location, its impact on the environment, and its consistency with the goals and objectives of such urban planning as has been promulgated by the community. [Added language in italics]

The provision on public hearings, which dated to the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1950, resulted from controversies over bypasses that took through traffic away from the "Main Street" merchants whose livelihood depended on passing motorists. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 amended the provision to require public hearings, or the opportunity for them, to consider the economic impacts of routes going through cities or towns as well as those routes bypassing them. This provision did not clearly apply to Interstate highways, which would have wiped out many of the bypassed small towns if routed through them; the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1958 amended the provision to provide the specific citation.

With enactment of Section 24 of the 1968 Act, the requirement was expanded to cover social and environmental impacts and consistency with urban planning. In discussing the change in the 1968 Act, the Conference Committee report explained that the reason for the change was the one-sided nature of public hearings:

The public hearings held by the States [under Section 128] have been less than adequate in performing the intended functions of informing the public and allowing those affected to adequately voice their opinions, recommendations, and suggestions. One of the major problems raised before the committee was the inordinate amount of time that transpires between the date public hearings are held and the date construction begins. Based on an examination of the situation in nine urban areas, the average timespan between public hearings and the start of construction is about 8 years ...
It is important that those who participate in the hearings believe that the views they express will be considered and weighed in decisions relating to highway location and design. These hearings are intended to produce more than a public presentation by the highway department of its plans and decisions.

On October 23, 1968, FHWA published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register [33 FR 15663]. The purpose of the rule was "to ensure, to the maximum extent practicable, that highway locations and designs reflect and are consistent with Federal, State, and local goals and objectives."

The Notice called for two hearings, or an opportunity for holding them, to familiarize all interested parties with the project and give them a chance to express their views at stages when the flexibility to respond to those views still existed. First, the corridor public hearing was to be held before the State highway agency was committed to a specific alternative and was to "ensure that an opportunity is afforded for effective participation by interested persons" and to provide a "public forum that affords a full opportunity for presenting views on each proposed highway location, and the social, economic, and environmental effects of that location and alternate locations." Second, the design public hearing was to be held after FHWA's Division Engineer, who headed the Agency's office in the State, approved the route location, but before highway design approval. The purposes were similar to those for the corridor public hearing.

The Notice defined "social, economic, and environmental effects" as "the direct and indirect benefits or losses to the community and to highway users," as reflected in a range of factors to be considered. The factors included national defense, economic activity, employment, aesthetics, residential and neighborhood character and location, religious institutions and practices, conservation (including erosion, sedimentation and other water pollution problems), natural and historical landmarks, multiple use of space, and public health and safety. In addition, the factors included such traditional factors as engineering, right-of-way and construction costs, maintenance and operational needs, and operation and use of existing highway facilities and other transportation facilities during construction and after completion.

Further, the Notice spelled out appeal procedures after FHWA's Division Engineer published a notice of action approving a highway location:

Any interested person may appeal the action of the division engineer on a request for approval of a highway location or design, or both. The appeal must be filed, within 15 days after the date of publication of the notice of that action ... The filing of an appeal within the time prescribed ... stays the action of the division engineer until the appeal is disposed of by the Administration.

The appellate provision would soon threaten the Federal-State partnership that was at the heart of the Federal-aid highway program.

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Updated: 06/27/2017
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