Mega-loads: Supers say no

Clearwater, Lolo Forest Service officials write objection letters

By Eric Barker of the Tribune

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Supervisors of the Clearwater and Lolo national forests are worried mega-loads along U.S. Highway 12 in Idaho and Montana will make it difficult for the agency to carry out its mission and adversely affect public recreation.

In separate letters to the Idaho and Montana departments of transportation, Clearwater Supervisor Rick Brazell and Lolo Supervisor Deborah Austin said allowing the oversized loads of oil-processing and mining equipment could set a precedent that transforms the highway from a rural, scenic route to an industrial byway.

“Authorizing hundreds of oversized loads, now or in the future, jeopardizes the experience the traveling and recreating public will have along U.S. Highway 12 through the introduction of overtly industrial elements into the otherwise pastoral environment,” said Brazell in a Sept. 10 letter to Jim Carpenter, district engineer for the Idaho Transportation Department at Lewiston.

Both supervisors are concerned the slow-moving loads that will cause periodic closures of the highway could hamper public access to the forest, pose safety hazards, restrict tribal members from exercising treaty rights, alter natural views and disturb campers.

“The potential for disturbance to campers due to idling large trucks, flashing lights and/or long lines of vehicles passing these areas would be disruptive to campers and would take away from the natural setting of the national forest,” said Austin in a Sept. 8 letter to Doug Moeller, District 1 administrator of the Montana Department of Transportation at Missoula.

Oil companies ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil are seeking permits to use the highway to transport massive truckloads of equipment from the Port of Lewiston to central Montana and Alberta, Canada. The shipments are so large they would take up both lanes of the two-lane highway and require rolling roadblocks. Although they would travel only at night, the trucks would be required to park in turnouts during the day. Both supervisors said forest visitors use those turnouts for parking while fishing, hunting and cross-country skiing. They also said the roadblocks and traffic jams caused by the loads would make it difficult for Forest Service employees to access recreation sites and respond to emergencies such as wild fires.

In Idaho, the highway follows the Middle Fork Clearwater and Lochsa rivers, both designated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The highway has also been designated an All American Road. Brazell said regular shipments of mega-loads along the highway are inconsistent with those designations.

“The experience people expect to find is a narrow, winding road with beautiful views of the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers, with roadside turnouts available for them to take it all in,” Brazell said. “This is the experience marketed by the ITD website and the Scenic Byway brochures and it is found in the Forest Service information as well.”

Both states have rights-of-way giving them authority over use of the highway as it passes through national forest land. Brazell and Austin both acknowledged they have little authority to prevent the shipments, but asked the state transportation officials to abide by agreements with the Forest Service and consider long-term effects of permitting the loads.

“I recognize I have no jurisdiction to stop these shipments but I do oppose the idea of allowing this precedent to be set,” Brazell said in his letter.

ConocoPhillips had hoped to begin shipping its four loads last month, but 2nd District Judge John Bradbury issued an injunction on permits issued by the Idaho Transportation Department. The company is appealing the ruling to the Idaho Supreme Court. ExxonMobil plans to haul about 200 loads along the highway. The first load could begin transport late this year.

Barker may be contacted at [email protected] or at (208) 848-2273.