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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Lorax Hall of Shame Award: PA DOT

Today's first Lorax Hall of Shame award is given to Lancaster PA road planners who keep trying to build superhighways through irreplaceable rural countrysides. The goal: that tourists more easily drive through these serene vistas. The consequence: the disintegration of the vistas. This is actually a consolation prize - the road wasn't built.

But it was, in its planning stages, hugely controversial when I was visiting my ex in-laws in the late 80s. They live in Lancaster, about 30 miles from where my father was born and raised. I'm half Pennsylvania Dutch and my memory is full of the sights and smells of our family's beautiful farms, surrounded by other beautiful farms. Now my relatives live in developments, surrounded by other developments. Here is a picture I took of my great-grandfather Peppler's farm near the Maryland/Pennsylvania border:

Since the 80s, Lancaster has been developed at an astonishing pace. The richest farmland in America has been entombed under housing projects and parking lots, which are tightening like a noose around the Amish farms. (Ooh, block that metaphor! See what happens when I get emotional?)

Those farms make developers drool but are also marketed worldwide as the crown jewels of the county's tourism machine. According to Rick Huber, more than five million tourists visit Lancaster County each year -- 350 tourists for every Amish man, woman, and child in the county. (Here's a picture I took in the nearby Bachman Valley, where some of my dad's folks lived:)

A great deal of Lancaster County has been developed intensively and hideously, but the parts still owned by the Amish are unspoiled and these are the places the tourists want to visit. They want to feast their eyes on unruined countryside and goggle at the "quaint" Amish, who on the one hand find the cameras and RVs intrusive, but on the other hand acknowledge that the "English" -- an Amish term for outsiders -- bring dollars and jobs into the area. (A book I hadn't read yet when I wrote this post, After the Fire: the Destruction of the Lancaster County Amish, by Randy-Michael Testa, describes the "impending loss of Amish farms to housing developments, shopping centers, gawking tourists, and the greed and insensitivity of developers and public officials." See below for link to the review.)

The cars are bumper-to-bumper from May-to-September; it's very dangerous for a person with a horse-and-buggy. The traffic jams also annoy the people in the cars, of course, so the highway department planned a superhighway through the Amish countryside.

The Amish pointed out the Catch-22: if the highway were built so the tourists could see the Amish more easily, the Amish, whose farms and communities would be cleft by the road, would sell out and move away.

The Amish have learned to work the political machine a bit, and it seems the road got nixed. I'm sorry I missed the fun. According to Huber, its memorial is a nine-mile stretch of four-lane meadow with cows instead of 18-wheelers. You can even see the aborted exit ramps. It's called the "goat path."

This story is continued here and I reviewed Randy-Michael Testa's book here.

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At 12:25 AM, Blogger Jay said...

I'm a big fan of wasted government time and money.

At 9:00 PM, Blogger Natsthename said...

I'm from Lancaster and I never could understand what all of the interest in the Amish as a tourist industry.

It is certainly unsettling to return "home" and see how much farmland is gone. Those quiet places we used to frequent to neck with our boyfriends are now neighborhoods or strip centers. ;)

Lancaster County has lost its charm. I do have a high school pal who is working to preserve farmland. I know it is a tough battle, but she continues to fight.

At 10:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lancaster county is a major thoroughfare for beach traffic in the summer months. You have to be careful of horse-and-buggies when you're driving.

I only ever took a "tour" of the Amish areas once. It impressed me more than it excited me. I don't like to hear about disappearing farmland anywhere, but at least Lancaster still has more farmland than most neighboring counties.

At 1:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am the lorax, i speak for trees! Keep up the interesting work. You'd be happy to know that I am an environmental educator who uses the Lorax everyday as a tool for kids.


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