On March 25, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter wrote Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, objecting to Oregon’s proposal for a statue of the Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph in the U.S. Capitol. He called his letter a “gentle reminder” that Idaho has a greater claim to Chief Joseph than does Oregon.
Am I the only one jarred by the disconnect between his words and deeds? For over five years, Otter has worked to impose a terrible pet idea of his on the Nez Perce Tribe: to make U.S. 12 a high-and-wide corridor for football field-sized megaloads bound from Asia to the Alberta tar sands. In doing so he has ignored the deep, sustained opposition of the Nez Perce, who will bear most of the harm this corridor and its shipments will do local people and businesses, public and tribal lands and waters, and traditional and spiritual local practices.
U.S. 12 follows the Nez Perce Trail, which the tribe used daily in Chief Joseph’s time and still uses today. The tribe’s creation site and other spiritual sites dot the trail and U.S. 12 — sites whose history, access and traditional use the governor’s scheme will damage. The governor’s megaload corridor would bisect the Nez Perce Reservation, inflicting constant megaload traffic on tribal members conducting their lives and business. It would bisect the Clearwater Country lands the tribe ceded to the United States, but still retains traditional resource and religious use rights upon today.
The Nez Perce, who still possess Chief Joseph’s warrior spirit to defend their home, fought the governor on the road, where members of the Tribal Council were arrested for physically blocking a megaload after the governor refused their requests for delay and dialogue. They fought it in court, where they and their allies have so far prevailed. Thanks to tribal resistance, the megaload plan is on the shelf — for now.
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On the legal, community and economic merits, the Nez Perce opposition to megaloads makes more sense for Idaho than the governor’s position. But right or wrong on the merits, the Nez Perce Tribe does not want this megaload scheme. As a sovereign nation, a longtime good neighbor to the state of Idaho and local Idahoans, and top employer and economic contributor to its region and our state, its firm opposition should have counted very heavily with Otter. Instead he returned five years of “my way or no way.”
I don’t know what the Nez Perce people think of Oregon’s proposal or Otter’s objection to it. I hope the tribe’s view of whether a statue of Chief Joseph stands in the U.S. Capitol, and under whose sponsorship, weighs more than Oregon’s or Idaho’s view. But if Otter indeed wishes in Idaho’s name to honor Chief Joseph and the tribe he helped lead at a terrible time, a truly meaningful, wise and healing way to do so lies clear: Travel to Lapwai, tell the tribe he is done with megaloads, and pledge Idaho’s partnership with the Nez Perce to now move forward in Clearwater Country.
Pat Ford worked in Idaho and Northwest conservation for 40 years. He lives in Boise.