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Scrapbook: Idahoans Fight 'Mega-Load' Truck Route Through Wild & Scenic Corridor

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Sierra Club Scrapbook

April 29, 2011

Idahoans Fight 'Mega-Load' Truck Route Through Wild & Scenic Corridor

Lochsa-River-Leland-Howard
Photo by Leland Howard, courtesy of Leland Howard Fine Art Landscape Photography

Idahoans are rightly proud of the Lochsa and Middle Fork Clearwater Rivers. Tumbling through a wild stretch of the Clearwater National Forest in north-central Idaho, both are designated Wild & Scenic Rivers. During the spring, the Lochsa—which runs just north of the spectacular Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness—is rated as one of the world's top rivers for "continuous whitewater."

Rafting-on-the-Lochsa
Photo courtesy of Mountain Murmur

U.S. Highway 12, which parallels the Lochsa and Middle Fork Clearwater for nearly 100 miles, is also a source of local pride. The stretch of Hwy. 12 between Kooskia, Idaho, and the Montana border was one of the last two-lane U.S. highways to be built, completed only in the 1960s. Paralleling the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail for more than 80 miles, it provides access to wild, pristine hinterlands where rafters, kayakers, hunters, anglers, hikers, bikers, and recreationists of all stripes can pursue their passions.

Highway-12

But the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway, as Hwy. 12 through Idaho is known, is threatened by a plan by ExxonMobil and Imperial Oil of Canada to turn the route into a "mega-load" industrial truck corridor to transport massive tar sands plant "modules, assembled cheaply in South Korea and shipped across the Pacific to the inland port of Lewiston, through Idaho and Montana to Canada. The modules will then be used to construct Imperial/Exxon's proposed Kearl Project, a tar sands extraction and processing site near Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Longtime Sierra Club member Borg Hendrickson and her husband Linwood Laughy, below, with the Middle Fork Clearwater running behind them, live in Kooskia, in the foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains where the Middle and South Forks of the Clearwater converge. Last year, outraged by the Exxon/Imperial plan, the couple started Fighting Goliath, a grassroots network and information clearinghouse through which citizens opposed to the tar sands haul route can communicate and coordinate action.

Linwood-Laughy-Borg-Hendric

"We've been mega-load opposition activists for a year now, and Fighting Goliath has become the focal networking place for mega-load opponents," Hendrickson says. "We maintain the website and the email list and provide people with resources, updates, and ways they can take action."

The mega-load route along Highway 12 is a bad idea for loads of reasons, she says. The Fighting Goliath website provides the Top 20 Reasons U.S. 12 is Special. But tree-trimming crews are cutting a "high and wide" swath along the Wild & Scenic River corridor, shearing highway-side tree branches up to a height of 32 feet to create a rectangular tunnel through the forest for the mega-loads.

Particularly galling to Wild & Scenic private property easement holders is the fact that they encounter bureaucratic obstacles trying to secure permission to cut limbs along the Wild & Scenic corridor, while ExxonMobil simply hires trimmers, and with the acquiescence of the Clearwater National Forest and Idaho Transportation Department, begins cutting.

Hwy-12-tree-shearing

"I'm sickened by what I'm seeing," says Jim May, owner of the Reflections Inn on the Clearwater River near Kooskia. "Trees all along Highway 12 were being sheared back away from the road in a way that I thought I would never see. Many of us, of all political persuasions, living in the Wild & Scenic corridor, have lost any trust in the Forest Service and its ability and willingness to enforce even minimal standards of protection."

Tree-shearing-on-Hwy-12

"My wife and I invested everything we had, based on what we thought was the good faith and promise of the federal government, in building a business and a home that fit the unique qualities of this beautiful valley," May says. "The action taken by ExxonMobil, in collaboration with the Idaho Transportation Department, is beyond sad—it is criminal."

Ruth-May 

"We're deeply concerned about the implications," says Ruth May, above. "This isn't about trucks going by in the middle of the night—this is way beyond the parameters of normal. I don't see how this is going to help any of us-it's really about corporate profit."

Strong words—but the Mays have plenty of company in holding that opinion.

Al Poplawsky, below, vice chair of the Sierra Club's Idaho Chapter and chair of its Palouse Group, is organizing opposition to the high-and-wide corridor and tar sands development.

Al-Poplawsky

"The Wild & Scenic River corridor provides access to some of the wildest and most unspoiled lands and rivers in the lower 48 states, and the mega-haul route will limit access to these spectacular areas," he says. "The current proposal has 270 loads going through here, and each load will take four days to make it through. We know from documents we've seen that thousands more loads are planned, so we're talking about dozens of years of limiting access to these areas."

Below, a mega-load carrying a coke drum to a Billings, Montana, refinery that processes tar sands oil crosses the Maggie Creek Bridge in the Wild & Scenic River corridor on March 1. The bridge crossing took 15 minutes.

Megaload-on-Hwy-12

And then there are the tar sands, sometimes called the most destructive project on earth. "This is an environmental disaster that destroys vast acreages of the great northern boreal forest that has been described as the second great lung of the earth," Poplawsky says. "It's poisoning indigenous communities and stoking the fires of climate change. The United States should cease accepting oil from the Alberta tar sands, and the U.S., Idaho, and Montana should disallow the transport of foreign-made equipment to the tar sands region and concentrate on clean energy production."

In Boise on April 13, the Sierra Club co-hosted a screening of the tar sands expose H2Oil. "We had a terrific turnout of 150 people," says Club organizer Jessica Ruehrwein, "and most of them signed postcards to the Forest Service chief asking the agency to protect the wild & scenic values of the river corridor."

Cutting-the-corridor
Photo by Vicki Garcia, courtesy of Fighting Goliath

Ruehrwein introduced the film and spoke about tar sands. After the screening there was a Q&A session with representatives from the Sierra Club, Idado Rivers United, and Advocates for the West. Door prizes were given away and copies of the tar sands book Heart of the Monster were sold at the Club's table. "There was huge interest in this issue from the community, and our volunteers really stepped up to welcome participants and collect signatures," Ruehrwein says.

The proposed mega-loads will average 325 tons and be two-thirds of a football field in length and up to three stories high. In addition to violating the Wild & Scenic corridor, the route is at the epicenter of Nez Perce history and beliefs. Working with Friends of the Clearwater, Idaho Rivers United, and others, the Club has organized demonstrations, rented billboards along the route, and delivered 4,000 signatures to the Idaho Transportation Department and the governor.

"Transforming this remarkably wild, historically and culturally significant corridor into an industrial truck route for the tar sands mega-loads of multinational corporations would be obscene," says Borg Hendrickson. "Not fighting such a transformation would be akin—as in the tar sands—to allowing the planet's richest, greediest bullies plunder and ruin yet another precious and pristine place."

Learn more about toxic tar sands and the Highway 12 corridor (PDF).

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