Letters From the West

Nez Perce battle megaload shipment through their homeland

Nez Perce Tribal Chairman Silas Whitman

Nez Perce Tribal Chairman Silas Whitman was arrested Monday during protest of megaload.

U.S. 12 snakes through the Clearwater and Lochsa canyons along whitewater falls, verdant tall forests and through the lives of the Nez Perce today and yesterday.

It rivals many roads through national parks like Glacier and Yellowstone for scenery and natural character. This corner of Idaho bathed in beauty and steeped in our rich history.

In the mountains overlooking the highway Lewis and Clark led their Corps of Discovery through thick, sterile forests in the fall of 1805, nearing starving as they sought the Northwest Passage. It was here they encountered the Nez Perce, native Idahoans who took them in, fed them and made the rest of western American history possible.

Environmental groups like Idaho Rivers United fought hard to get U.S. District Judge B Lynn Winmill to force the U.S. Forest Service to exercise its responsibility to manage the this river corridor protected under the Wild and Scenic River Act authored by Idaho Sen. Frank Church. Companies turning the tar sands of northern Alberta into oil have sought to haul loads that take up both sides of this narrow road and to close it briefly to get these megaloads to Canada.

Clearwater Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell developed interim guidelines he told Idaho’s Department of Transportation it should follow before issuing a permit. But the department issued a permit to Omega Morgan, an Oregon-based shipper, which said last week it would haul a 255 foot long load 21 feet wide and 23 feet high up Lolo Pass this week.

That means the road will be closed for a period of time at night, not only an inconvenience for travelers and other shippers but especially for the people who live along that road. Many of these folks are members of the Nez Perce Tribe, whose reservation lines the road for much of its length.

Omega’s and Idaho’s snub of the federal government might not make people mad. But its indifferent attitude toward the Nez Perce may not go over so well.

These are the people whose hospitality in 1805 and later dignity in the face of defeat have been a sense of pride for all Americans. When its chairman Silas Whitman called me Monday he was angry.

“The tribe is shocked by Omega Morgan’s audacity,” Whitman said.

The Forest Service said it would not approve the shipment until it had consulted with the tribe, a responsibility it has since the federal government is a trustee for tribe and its members under the 1855 Treaty that remains in full effect. Idaho has honored this government to government relationship itself in recent years, sharing management of salmon, steelhead and wildlife and forging a water agreement that is a model for the nation.

Omega Morgan says General Electric, the company it is making the trip for, has no other option because its load is too high for overpasses on U.S. Interstate 90 to the north. Since earlier shippers made the same argument, then found ways to repackage or reroute, opponents are skeptical.

The shipments are limited to nighttime and are not allowed to block traffic for more than 15 minutes. That will make the trip take four days from Lewiston to Montana.

Brazell told Whitman he did not have the authority to block the shipment so the chairman went to U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell and Agriculture Under Secretary Robert Bonnie to plead his case.

Tribal leaders joined 100 protesters Monday night as the load passed the Nez Perce Casino just east of Lewiston. They made it clear they would not back down.

Whitman was arrested along with other a dozen other people, according to Boise State Radio.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West