Just west of the Nez Perce Reservation border near Lewiston, Idaho, a 644,000-pound heavy-haul transporter carrying tar sands mining equipment rounded a curve at 1:00 a.m. on Aug. 6, only to find a human blockade waiting.
Police in a dozen squad cars flipped on flashing lights as over 200 Nez Perce Indians and dozens of their allies swarmed onto Highway 12. Their goal: halting the giant load to protest its transport across the reservation. Over the next hour, the sounds of chanting, drumming and singing echoed from the walls of the canyon.
Then the arrests began, including eight members of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee. Another tense hour passed before the mega-transport crept forward toward the Clearwater-Lochsa Wild and Scenic River corridor and the Montana border at Lolo Pass. But the protesters had spoken, and within hours media would carry their voices across North America.
My wife, Borg Hendrickson, and I were among that group. For three years, we've been trying to block the effort of international corporations to industrialize U.S. 12 in Idaho. The companies say they must travel this remote route to send gargantuan mining equipment to northern Alberta's tar sands. We say the corridor is a national treasure, a magnet for tourists and not a safe route for these monster loads.
For 100 miles, Highway 12 hugs the banks of two of America's original wild-and-scenic rivers. It is the nationally designated Northwest Passage Scenic Byway and one of only 30 All-American Roads. But corporate giants such as ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, General Electric and others, encouraged by Idaho's governor and helped at every turn by the Idaho Transportation Department, saw Highway 12 as theirs to takefrom its neighbors, its thousands of annual visitors and from America.
Grassroots opposition has steadily grown, however, and during the last three years, state and federal courts have taken the side of the scenic byway. So far, an ExxonMobil subsidiary has transported only one of 207 proposed megaloads over Highway 12 and seven miles into Montana, where it sat for 13 months before being scrapped. The company has since reported being $2 billion over budget on its Kearl tar sands project, largely because of difficulties getting its equipment through Idaho and Montana.
Last October, a General Electric subsidiary abandoned its Highway 12 megaload plans after a federal judge ordered the U.S. Forest Service to protect the Lochsa-Clearwater Wild and Scenic River Corridor and temporarily close Highway 12 to megaloads. The Nez Perce Tribe, conservation groups and thousands of individual citizens are continuing their effort to make this closure permanent.
Eight miles downstream from the Nez Perce's highway blockade last August, the Port of Lewiston lies on the Clearwater River's north bank near its confluence with the Snake. The port isn't that busy: between 2000-2011, the total tonnage it shipped decreased by 61 percent, including declines in every commoditygrains, lumber and paper from a nearby mill.
Megaloads were to be the port's salvation. "If one oil company is successful, many more will follow," the Lewiston Port proclaimed in its application for federal economic recovery funds to extend a container dock that today ships less than 30 percent of its previous cargo. So far, however, plans for the port to bail out declining lower Snake River barging have foundered.
Which brings us to salmon. Most scientists believe that federal dams may have tipped the scale from recovery to extinction of Snake River salmon. "Someone needs to speak for the animals," a Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee member told reporters shortly before the tribe's megaload blockade.
Our fight to preserve the Clearwater-Lochsa corridor we have long called home has led my wife and me through agency offices and courtrooms to the tar sands of northern Alberta, to the decline of commercial navigation on the lower Snake, and now, to the endangered salmon and steelhead trout that swim, in dwindling numbers, past our front door.
Along the way, we've been joined by thousands of fellow citizens who share a love of wild rivers and wild fish. We are all concerned about the growth of corporate power and the consequent bullying of people and disregard for natural places. Like returning salmon, we swim upstream, but our numbers are growing, and our voices persist.
Linwood Laughy is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He and his wife founded FightingGoliath.org, a network of individuals and organizations working to keep Highway 12 from being converted to a heavy haul route for giant industrial equipment.