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National Park Service throws support behind Route 66 National Historic Trail status

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Photo by Tony Hisgett.

A proposal to continue preservation efforts for Route 66 by designating it a National Historic Trail received endorsement from the National Park System in a legislative hearing this week.

“Route 66 has become a powerful symbol of America’s social, political, and economic mobility and freedom,” Sue Masica, the acting deputy director of the National Park Service, said in prepared remarks before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands Wednesday. “Every year, thousands of visitors, many from other countries, come to experience the mid-20th century American automobile-centered culture represented by Route 66. These visitors are vital to the economies of the numerous rural communities through which the route passes.”

The National Park Service studied Route 66 for a potential National Historic Trail designation once before, in 1990, and found that it met the criteria for National Historic Trail status. At the time, however, Congress decided not to designate Route 66 as a National Historic Trail and instead created the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, administered by the National Park Service, which is set to expire in 2019.

According to the National Trails System Act of 1968, only an act of Congress can create new Historic Trail designations, and a trail must meet three criteria to qualify for the designation: It must be of historical significance; it must be of national significance; and it must have potential for historic interpretation or public recreational use.

Along with the permanent designation and ongoing federal funding, National Historic Trail status would provide uniform signage along the 2,400-mile road, interpretive panels, and the opportunity to develop cooperative agreements with local organizations, according to Bill Thomas, the chairman of the Route 66 Road Ahead Initiative, who also testified at Wednesday’s hearing.

“Over the past 30 years, Route 66 has once again returned to its original purpose, which was both in economic development and in connecting small towns and rural areas to the rest of the country,” Thomas said. “The potential of leveraging Route 66 for even more economic development exists and will be greatly assisted by its designation as a National Historic Trail.”

Representative Tom McClintock of California, the chairman of the subcommittee, raised the possibility that H.R. 801, the bill that would give Route 66 National Historic Trail status, could allow the federal government to appropriate land along the route to develop the trail, as it has done along other National Historic Trails. “It’s important we don’t turn this into a federal land grab,” he said. However, Thomas pointed out that the language of the bill specifically prohibits the acquisition of land for the trail without consent of the existing landowner.

Masica did introduce one technical amendment to the bill, recommending a thorough description and map of Route 66.

Commissioned in 1926, Route 66 connected Chicago to Santa Monica, California, as part of the country’s first federal highway system. Following the completion of the Interstate Highway System and the bypassing of most Route 66 sections, it was decommissioned as a federal highway in 1985.

A separate bill intended to preserve Route 66 introduced earlier this year, H.R. 66, the Route 66 Centennial Commission Act, also remains in subcommittee.