Bill Sedivy: Latest drama over Clearwater-Lochsa has many villains


August 23, 2013 

There is no shortage of bad guys in the latest episode over oil industry efforts to transform the beautiful Clearwater-Lochsa Wild and Scenic River corridor into a permanent shipping route for oversized megaloads of industrial equipment bound for tar sands mines in Canada.

First, there's the Oregon-based industrial moving company Omega Morgan and its recent U.S. Highway 12 client, General Electric.

On Aug. 5, Omega ignored U.S. Forest Service regulations and a resolution from the Nez Perce tribe and began trucking GE's 644,000-pound, 21-foot-wide, 255-foot-long piece of wastewater treatment equipment across tribal land, through the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest and one of America's most magnificent Wild and Scenic River corridors.

Next in the cast: the Idaho Transportation Department and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter. Once again, ITD has rolled out the red carpet for the tar sands folks and their contractors with no regard for local residents, taxpayers, recreationists, small businesses or the Nez Perce tribe.

The state's position shouldn't surprise anyone. Neither the governor nor ITD gives a hoot about protecting Idaho's public lands and wild rivers.

However, issuing state permits for Omega Morgan to roll through tribal land and the river corridor - without regard for Forest Service authority or tribal concerns - showed incredible audacity and an amazing lack of respect for the agency and for native people.

The Forest Service should have been a hero in this episode. But it behaved like a villain, too.

Following a federal court ruling last February, the Forest Service issued interim regulations governing the passage of megaloads through forest land and the wild and scenic corridor. Those rules should have stopped the load at the National Forest boundary.

But the Forest Service didn't have backbone enough to enforce the rules when it came to GE, Omega Morgan and ITD. While Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell did ask ITD and Omega Morgan to delay shipment until permanent rules are adopted, he received no support from regional headquarters or Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell when the time came to make a stand and turn the load away.

This Forest Service inaction could set a very bad precedent. Why would any bad actor obey Forest Service rules when it's clear the agency doesn't have the nerve to enforce them?

The oil industry, however, remains the most evil character in this drama.

Since the fall of 2008, big oil companies and their shippers have been working overtime and spending millions to convert Highway 12 and America's first Wild and Scenic River corridor into a high-and-wide route that prioritizes megaload transport over other highway and river uses.

Led by Exxon Mobil/Imperial Oil, the industry wants this corridor badly - in order to save a few nickels in shipping costs to the tar sands. If they get their way, hundreds of megaloads - along with their rolling roadblocks - will create safety hazards for residents and visitors, mar scenery, block traffic, and block access to recreation, cultural and historic sites.

Megaloads don't belong in the Clearwater-Lochsa corridor. That's why, in 1968, Idaho Sen. Frank Church led congressional efforts to protect the Clearwater, Lochsa and Selway by including them among America's first protected rivers.

Still, with help from ITD and Gov. Otter, the oil companies will continue their efforts to transform this special place.

We must stop them here. If concerned citizens, the Nez Perce tribe and the Forest Service can't protect the Clearwater-Lochsa basin, no wild rivers or public lands will be safe from exploitation.

Bill Sedivy is executive director of Idaho Rivers United, a river conservation group with 3,500 members from across Idaho and the Northwest.

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