In 1964, in the shade of the foothills he hoped to protect, Wallace Stegner addressed the State Highway Commission and urged that agency not to build the Willow Road Freeway. It was 7 years before he would write his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Angle of Repose, and if Stegner’s words sounded far more eloquent than a public hearing demanded, they were only too appropriate for the pivotal choice he described for the future of the Peninsula.
Stegner was no NIMBY–he disdained the notion that opposing Willow Road Freeway was “mere selfish desire to shift the road into someone else’s backyard”–and he expressed sympathy for the Commission even as he implored them not to build a “loaded and cocked gun aimed straight at the heart of the last splendid open space on the Peninsula.” He talked of “splendid and essential roads” built by the Division of Highways, but always insisted that at the heart of his opposition was a desire to save the environment of the many from the short-sighted plans of the few. His position, he said, came from “deep doubt that the freeway will serve any actual public need…it will benefit not the large public but a few developers.”
In fact, Stegner was so far-reaching in his vision of a thriving, still-forested Peninsula that some of his statements sound more radical than many environmental screeds do today. Several months prior to the signing of the Civil Rights Act, he decried the lack of public infrastructure and planning for the future. “What we need now is not debate on the Willow Road Freeway extension;” he explained, “what we need is a reconsideration of our whole transportation problem.” Decades before climate change became headline news, Stegner extolled the virtues of “air-conditioning” provided by the green hills and wondered aloud to the Commission about a different and better future. “We need to ask ourselves if we are not spending all our money on roads to go somewhere, and nothing on the somewhere to which we might want to go.”
Wallace Stegner was a conservationist ahead of his time and became the first President of Committee for Green Foothills. We are honored to carry out his vision and that of all our founders to this day. You can read the full text of Stegner’s speech to the State Highway Commission below:Wallace Stegner 06 Feb 1964