Megaload foes put pressure on USFS

Lawsuit claims Clearwater National Forest has obligation to protect river corridor

By Eric Barker of the Tribune
March 11, 2011
Opponents of megaloads have turned to federal court in an effort to stop shipments of oversized equipment along U.S. Highway 12 and its wild and scenic river corridor.

Idaho Rivers United filed a suit in U.S. District Court at Boise on Thursday claiming the Clearwater National Forest is failing to protect the pristine nature of the Lochsa and Middle Fork of the Clearwater corridor and is not enforcing terms of an easement it has with the Idaho Transportation Department.

Those fighting the massive loads, which take up two lanes of traffic and require rolling road blocks, failed to stop the shipments in state court last year when they argued the loads posed threats to safety, infrastructure and local economies. Now they are saying Forest Service officials who are on record as having serious reservations about the loads have not done enough to stop them.

“We have a responsibility to protect the Clearwater and Lochsa – the way we see them now and enjoy them now – for our children and for their children,” said Kevin Lewis, conservation director for the Boise-based group. “The Forest Service shares that responsibility and should be leading the charge for protection.”

ExxonMobil has been given a permit by the Idaho Transportation Department to transport one load as a test run from Lewiston to the Idaho/Montana Border at Lolo Pass. The oil company is seeking permits for as many as 200 more loads as part of its efforts to develop oil fields in Alberta, Canada.

The highway follows both rivers which are protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act for their scenic beauty, recreational opportunities such as fishing and rafting, and cultural and historic values. The suit alleges the loads, which travel only at night but are parked at highway pullouts during the day, detract from the scenic beauty and will block access to the river. It also says the agency has allowed previous oversized loads shipped by ConocoPhillips to use portions of some pullouts not in the easement and the department and shippers to trim hundreds of trees and remove rocks with little or no environmental analysis.

Rick Brazell, supervisor of the Clearwater Forest expressed some of the same concerns about recreational access and the intrusion of industrial equipment in a pastoral setting in a letter he wrote to the Idaho Transportation Department last year. But Brazell also concluded he had no authority over the shipments because the state has a easement for the highway.

“I recognize I have no jurisdiction to stop these shipments but I do oppose the idea of allowing this precedent to be set,” he wrote in September of last year.

The lawsuit says the agency does have authority to stop the loads under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the National Forest Management Act and by making the department adhere to the terms of its easement.

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