A potent political movement organized around the new-terrain I-69 highway is the only force on earth that can kill outright this massive political and economic fraud being perpetrated upon the citizens of Indiana by Bayh-O'Bannon Democrats, former Hoosier Environmental Council Director Jeff Stant said in Bloomington last week.

"We have come to what could be the most historic moment in the history of our movement, of our environmental movement in Indiana," Stant told about 75 citizens who came to hear his talk at the Monroe County Public Library.

"We've debated the merits long enough. Logic and common sense are heavily on our side. But the struggle is not at all about logic and common sense. It's about whether we, the environmental community, possess the determination to make the question of building a new-terrain interstate into a political issue powerful enough to defeat a sitting governor's hand-picked replacement."

Legal challenges to new-terrain I-69 will at best only delay the ultimate decision by state officials to build the highway they want, Stant said. Environmentalists statewide must rally around I-69 and form coalitions with farmers, taxpayer groups, and citizens in other affected communities if they ever hope to stop it completely.

Stant's presentation on "Organizing a Political Movement Around I-69" was organized and sponsored by The Bloomington Alternative and a host of other groups and individuals. His talk was preceded by remarks from Alternative editor Steven Higgs and COUNT US! PAC's John Smith. The two-hour event concluded with a public discussion.

Excerpts from Stant's talk follow.


No one person has the answer

"I have to start off by telling you I don't know how we're going to accomplish this because I've never been involved in an issue this massive before. And I don't think there's anybody who's all-knowing in how you win or lose something this massive. But I have an opinion, a very passionate opinion about it."

A question of vision

"The issue's huge. It's about the future of a region that spans 20 counties of Indiana. It's about two starkly different visions of that future. And the impact of our opponents' vision winning over ours will be major, adverse, irreparable and far-reaching. The tranquil rural environment, the villages, the forests, the meadows, the farms that are the predominant characteristic of Southwest Indiana and that exist from Central Indiana to our Southwest corner will cease to exist as we know them and as we cherish them. That is our fear."

"At the rate sprawl is devouring our state, and it's happening through the primary arterial highways and interstates of this state, in a half a century, 40 percent of the state will be within urban boundaries. Look at a map of Indiana, and half of the map will be yellow. Everything from Louisville to Lafayette will be a city. And that's what's behind the vision of the folks who want to build the interstate to Evansville."

The work thus far

"Now, those leading our side of this have elevated the issue to the highest level of controversy and profile and visibility that I've ever seen in the years that I've been involved in and fighting environmental battles since 1977, 25 years. … In terms of the masses of people involved and the opinions it's creating in the mainstream, in the body politic of the state, this is the biggest issue I've ever seen or witnessed."

"Up to the present, we have relied on a defensive strategy. We have responded to each and every move the state has made. We have generated far more comments than those on the other side, and the disparity grows with every round. We've torn apart every justification the state has used and every document they have produced.

"Sometimes the defense does involve very active proactive efforts to build public awareness. But in terms of going for the jugular of the other side, to beat them once and for all, that is not there. As a result of that, I believe that the forces that favor a new-terrain I-69, which are immensely powerful and have run our state from the get-go, these forces are closer to realizing their vision of building an interstate that slices across the heart of Southwest Indiana than ever before, and that opens it up to the sprawl and development that is consuming the rest of the state.

Don't trust the law

"In the end, I believe that if INDOT cleans up its act, we will not stop this interstate with a lawsuit. While we have been able to capitalize on the arrogance, the ineptness and the stupidity that these powerful interests who are used to having their way exhibit, our luck in exploiting these weaknesses will only go so far, for so long.

"Ultimately, it is the governor's perogative to establish the purpose and need for this highway. The U.S. courts will not let environmentalists use NEPA to keep an agency from damaging the environment forever. They'll let you use it to stall that damage, but they won't let you use it to say, 'It won't happen.'

"I'm not trying to say at all that we shouldn't pursue a legal challenge, the most vigorous, aggressive legal challenge we can of this EIS when it comes out, particularly if it chooses that ridiculous hybrid route, because the delay that will give us is going to be crucial to winning this struggle. But that delay cannot be the silver bullet. It cannot be the backbone of the strategy we're relying upon. "

Don't trust the government

"Furthermore, while they also may delay the decision, other federal agencies cannot veto the final decision that INDOT makes, as long as the Federal Highway Administration supports it. If you don't believe that, look at what they've done on the State Road 145 extension through the National Forest.

"EPA and folks in the interior Department wrote objections to that. Federal highway said, 'Write something to address them.' They wrote a final EIS, a supplement and a final EIS, that didn't address them but talked about their concerns. Federal Highway signed off on that, and that highway is about to start construction in the spring of 2004 across some of the most important land for the national forest to acquire. And the agencies spoke out against it. EPA was fairly forceful, more forceful in its comments on that than on this."

"They're being ignored. And ultimately, they're recommendations. That's what it comes down to. As long as INDOT eventually puts enough analysis of alternatives into its Environmental Impact Statement to demonstrate that it has gathered the information essential to a reasoned choice among alternatives, the courts will give a green light to our elected leaders to build this new-terrain interstate."

Trust the vision and the voters

"The conclusion of this struggle cannot be determined in our favor by whether INDOT follows the law. Rather, it must be determined by which side's vision of Southern Indiana will prevail. This is a political question that only the voters can decide. As long as the voters decide to put Frank O'Bannon or someone else in the governor's office who, for whatever reason, wants this new-terrain highway, it will be built when the time arrives to make a final decision.

"We have come to what could be the most historic moment in the history of our movement, of our environmental movement in Indiana. We've debated the merits long enough. Logic and common sense are heavily on our side. But the struggle is not at all about logic and common sense. It's about whether we, the environmental community, possess the determination to make the question of building a new-terrain interstate into a political issue powerful enough to defeat a sitting governor's hand-picked replacement.

"And it's about whether we are determined enough to make our passionate feelings about this outrageously unjustified, extremely destructive, outdated and incredibly expensive highway as salient in the minds of average voters, or who we believe are the average votes, as they are in our minds."

Establish political power

"Doing that is the essence of establishing political power. It's when what you think is what everybody else is thinking. It's making everybody else think what you think. And I believe we have the ability now, thanks to the sacrifices that the leaders of this struggle have made, to attain this level of political power over the next 23 months, leading up to the 2004 gubernatorial election.

"We're more than a hundred thousand strong and united by a passionate belief that the rural heritage, the farms, the winding roads, the forests, the river bottoms, and the wetlands that predominate in Southwest Indiana must not be replaced by divided highways, asphalt, industrial parks, gas stations, nondescript shopping malls and subdivisions with fancy names.

Target top offices

"I'm asking that we come together in a political movement toward this end, that we make our aim as clear and as simple as possible. We target the incumbent party - on one or two statewide political leaders up for election in 2004 - for certain defeat, publicly stated, certain defeat, without an unconditional, sworn, public pledge from them to end further consideration of any new-terrain interstate in favor of upgrading I-70 and U.S. 41.

"Now, why just one or two races. Because the governor and Indiana's U.S. senators ultimately have the power to decide whether this interstate is built. … We know that the governor and U.S. Senator Evan Bayh will be up for election and have an almost absolute authority to make a final decision on this highway.

"And we know that we have to focus our efforts and our resources on the races that will make the most difference. Now I am not saying that we vote for the Republicans who are running for governor and against Evan Bayh, no matter what the Democratic candidate for governor or Evan Bayh say or do. I think it would be not smart to give the Republicans a blank check, then there would be no pressure on them to carefully think about their position."

Start now

"What I am saying is, we need to do outreach now to the Democrats around Frank O'Bannon and try to influence the decisions made about who they're going to pick, and we need to also do the same thing with the Republicans. … We need to do outreach into both political parties now.

"But, we need to recognize that just like the fact that O'Bannon has so ruthlessly ignored us, the chances are we're still going to be in the doghouse. We're not going to outweigh the financial interests that are pursuing the new-terrain highway in their decision-making, in either party. "

Hold the Democrats accountable

"And if it comes down to that, we have to realize something. The Democrats have been in charge of INDOT and what it asks the Congress for every year since 1988. Winning this war will be first about holding them unambiguously and absolutely accountable for what they have done.

"While the Republican candidate's position may be just as bad, if we start now, hopefully we can mitigate that, maybe it won't be. But if not, we cannot let the leaders who have been pushing this highway - Evan Bayh and Frank O'Bannon and his successor - we cannot let them hide behind some fear that the Republicans might be a little worse.

"No matter what, we must hold them accountable. We must teach both parties the lesson that while either is in control, they will have to deal with our vision or they will be in serous trouble in the next election. The environmentalist is not a politically feared animal in Indiana. This movement is about changing that perception."

No third party, at least not now

"Why not launch a third-party run at the governor's office some might say. I've joined the Green Party in Indianapolis, I'm contributing to it, I'm going to a meeting tomorrow night. I've been to the last meeting, I'm trying to help them develop a platform. I think that ultimately the environmentalists are going to have to pursue involvement in the Green Party in this next round and for the long term.

"But I don't think that's the answer for this particular movement that I'm talking about, because what we'll do is we'll defeat ourselves in the process. We do not agree on many issues, let's face it, we do not have the time to hammer out a platform on those issues. We cannot afford to waste energy and create internal strife over them."

A united front critical

"What is clear is that environmentalists, spread across the region from Indianapolis to Greencastle to Terre Haute to Vincennes to Evansville, up to Bedford to Bloomington and in between that huge triangle, are united in a passionate resolve to fight any new-terrain I-69.

"We've tapped into the farmers, the churches, the sportsmen, the labor unions, the businesses, the local governments, the neighborhood associations, taxpayers groups, editorial writers, reporters. And we've created in the process a coalition that has unprecedented potential for power that agrees with that position.

"Outside of that region, the numbers of Hoosiers that are beginning to share our beliefs and making that known are growing by leaps and bounds. I've been approached by people on the Lake Michigan shore asking what's happening down there, are they canning that highway yet? The same thing in Fort Wayne. And these people are not environmentalists.

"The fact is that we might parse the issue differently up there than down here, and from region to region, but it all comes down to one point of agreement. No new-terrain I'69. None. Now, from Lake Michigan to the Ohio River, that's what you hear."

No small task

"Swinging 150,000 to 200,000 votes over this issue in the 2004 gubernatorial and U.S. Senate race to replace Evan Bayh or re-elect him, however you want to look at that, is going to be an ambitious goal. But if we get started on it now, it's going to be far more realistic in my opinion than drawing those votes into a third-party candidacy, an environmentalist candidacy for governor. We're not ready to do that yet. And we have to kill I-69 before it kills us.

"We have come to the threshold of power. We can win this war. We can stop any new-terrain I-69 dead in its tracks. Our vision of maintaining a sustainable human community that thrives off the natural heritage of Southern Indiana instead of destroys it can prevail and create a new political watershed in the process. But only if we come together and elevate this cause to a statewide political movement now, if we focus on that from today on.

"It will take many more days and nights and many new recruits. That's what obtaining the power to stop I-69 has always been about."

Start in Bloomington

"Let the launching of this movement begin here in Bloomington, where the launching of the issue began. And when we're done, each of you will look into your child's eyes, or your nephew's or niece's eyes, survey the land left untarnished here, or listen to the thrush's song in the evening, and know it was our only choice and the right course to have taken."