Is Altamont historic, too?

  • Westward migrants in covered wagons on the Oregon Trail

    William Henry Jackson

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, HCN's founder fights his last fight, yet again.

"We're part of history, too," says Cathy Purves, Altamont environmental consultant in Lander. Making it clear that she's not speaking for the company, she continues, "I think it's presumptuous of us to say that history stops now, and nothing else can occur."

Comments like this raise Tom Bell's hackles. "There is only one Oregon Trail," he says. "There are pipelines for thousands of miles. To assume that at one point in time this will also be historical is really stretching it."

The National Environmental Policy Act, with its emphasis on data and facts, is not designed to settle disputes like this. "How do you reflect people's feelings and history and anxieties in an EIS?" asks Jim Roseberry of the BLM.

One law does reflect such concerns. The National Historic Preservation Act requires federal agencies to consult with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation before approving any project that affects a site listed on - or eligible for - the National Register of Historic Places.

A small area at the summit of South Pass is already a National Historic Landmark, and in June 1992, the Advisory Council signed an agreement to mitigate Altamont's impact on the cultural resources it would disrupt as it passed nearby.

But Bell feels that the swath cut by the pipeline's 100-foot right-of-way will destroy the spell of the place. He and a group called Friends of South Pass want the entire area listed as a National Rural Historic Landscape, a relatively new category that can include large pieces of real estate.

Such designations are purely honorary, however. While they may encourage local governments to enact protective ordinances, they entail no other legal protection. And places such as South Pass can easily fall through their cracks.

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