Highway deaths continue ... while experts study flint shards

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted November 29, 1999

Las Vegas and Phoenix have been two of America's fastest growing cities for 50 years. Twenty thousand vehicles per day travel the main (and only direct) route between these two metropolises. But though it's a 60-mile-per-hour, four-lane thoroughfare for most of its length, U.S. 93 has one big problem: Traffic must slow to 15 mph to negotiate a series of steep, switchback curves that finally take the road directly across the top of Hoover Dam.

While this may have seemed a bold and elegant solution to crossing the Colorado in 1934, today U.S. 93 can back up for miles, even when there's no accident. And there are plenty of accidents -- three times as many as on comparable roads.

Everybody knows the solution -- a new, wider bridge must bypass Hoover Dam. The Sugarloaf Mountain route was the least expensive and least environmentally disruptive of those studied. State and federal funds for the $198 million project are available, and the sooner it's built, the better.

So, construction will start soon, right?

Of course not. Construction could still be two years away, due to the discovery of Indian artifacts along the proposed route, highway officials announced in mid-November. It could take an extra nine months -- till next summer -- just to determine whether these artifacts are the property of any of the 13 Indian tribes whose legends tell them their roots lie in this region.

Wow. Up till now, tourists and archaeologists have had to travel more than 300 miles, to Canyon de Chelly or Mesa Verde in the Four Corners area, to see well-preserved cliff dwellings or other substantial ruins of the archaic Indian cultures. Surely the discovery of something equivalent in this area is indeed worthy of note, and study.

Only problem is, there are no ruins. What archaeologists actually say they've found is "lithic scatter" -- the remains of ancient tool-making operations. The Neolithic equivalent of a slag heap.

And there's not really any question about any Indian tribes owning the land. Instead, tribal leaders will be asked whether anyone can remember hearing old stories about these stark bluffs and canyons forming part of their "traditional cultural property" -- with the line forming on the left.

Alice Baldrica, deputy historic preservation officer for Nevada, says: "It's our duty here to make sure they go through the process. If they don't take certain steps, then they leave themselves open to a challenge in court," by environmentalists and others who'd love to block the bypass.

Unfortunately, in today's litigious climate, Ms. Baldrica is right -- there's little to be done now but get all the ducks in a row, dealing with each step of "the process," in order.

But let's not concede that this is sensible, or historically normal. If the federal government had followed such a "process" before embarking on the Manhattan Project, we'd still be awaiting a riparian habitat assessment prior to the issuance of building permits for the labs at Oak Ridge ... in Japanese.

If this "process" had been in place during the era of America's greatness, Mount Rushmore would still be a bald granite bluff, and George Washington would still be awaiting written permission to dig privies and light outdoor fires at Valley Forge.

No one is talking here about bulldozing cliff dwellings or desecrating Indian burial grounds. But it's unlikely there's any stretch of land in the West where one can't find an old firepit or some "lithic scatter." Meantime, real human lives are lost on U.S. 93 every year.

This is an important project. A civilization which can't complete such a project in a timely manner is like an old pet too stiff to walk, and too slow to avoid accidents on the rug.

We are allowing Luddites and obstructionists to strangle us slowly in our sleep. Enough is enough.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His new book, "Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998," is available at $24.95 postpaid from Mountain Media, P.O. Box 271122, Las Vegas, Nev. 89127; by dialing 1-800-244-2224; or via web site http://www.thespiritof76.com/wacokillers.html. Credit cards accepted; volume discounts available.

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