Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has worked hard for six years to turn the state's Highway 12 into a corridor for sending massive, 200-foot-long megaloads of heavy equipment to Alberta, Canada, for tar sands extraction. But it's not working out.
First, state court verdicts in Idaho and Montana, plus botched operations by megaload haulers, held things up. Then a federal court verdict late last year extended the delay another year or more. Oil companies began searching for other routes, and in May, heavy-equipment manufacturer Harris Thermal announced it would open a new plant in Bonner, Mont., giving it a straight shot north for its giant equipment, bypassing Highway 12.
Americans may know Highway 12 as the route of the Lewis and Clark and Nez Perce trails. Many Idahoans and Montanans know it as their main access to the wild and bountiful Clearwater Country. For locals, it is the narrow winding river road they use every day for work, recreation and family activities. It is their fastest, and in many cases only, access to medical care and other community resources in Lewiston and Missoula. It bisects the Nez Perce Reservation and ceded tribal lands, and runs right next to the site of the tribe's creation story. Because the area's economy relies on recreation, fish, wildlife, forests and tribal resources, everyday use of Highway 12—which megaloads would upend—remains a necessity of life.
Which leads to the question: Why have Gov. Otter and his Transportation Department spent six years, and at least $1 million of Idahoans' money, trying to turn it into something resembling a semi-private access road for Big Oil?
One answer is that the Army Corps of Engineers' lower Snake waterway and Idaho's "seaport" at Lewiston desperately need megaload barge traffic. The waterway's use by growers and manufacturers, never large, has for a decade been melting away to more flexible transportation options, even as American and Lewiston taxpayers pay steadily increasing subsidies for it. Otter supports the waterway despite its rising costs and vanishing benefits.
But his megaload mania also signals that he has lost contact with the conservative "Idaho values" he constantly proclaims. Instead, the genuine conservatives here, the real defenders of Idaho values, are the Nez Perce people, who are fighting the megaloads.
The Nez Perce are defending their homeland, which they have inhabited and husbanded for centuries. During decades of dispossession and disrespect, they protected their homeland, working steadily to reclaim their traditional ways and liberties while being good neighbors to the children of their dispossessors. No Idahoans are more rooted to their home and faith.
Contrast that with Exxon and the other agents of Big Oil that Otter has aligned with—radical, rootless, sharp-elbowed bullies, for whom homelands are "corridors," sacred places coordinates on computer screens, and the people of those lands abstract units defined solely by financial transactions. Nez Perce words and actions have been consistent. However, Exxon has repeatedly misled the public and changed its stories to get access to Highway 12. Otter has been silent about or party to these deceptions.
For Big Oil, Alberta's northern forests are overburden to bulldoze. The Nez Perce, knowing those forests are home to people and the ecosystems that sustain them, have invited these people to visit Idaho and describe what the mining is doing to them. Otter has never consulted these people. The Nez Perce have considered the accelerating harm that global warming will cause their children's children, and see its connection to mining the Canadian tar sands. Otter has apparently not thought about it.
When Nez Perce leaders decided to blockade one megaload shipment through tribal lands—a shipment Idaho permitted over the tribe's objection—they accepted the consequences of their civil disobedience and were arrested peacefully by the tribe's own police. When a federal judge halted further megaload traffic, in part due to the state's failure to consult the tribe, Otter responded—not by legally appealing the verdict—but by attacking the judge for failing to share what he calls the conservative values of Idaho.
Otter is not the first Western conservative to act like nothing of the kind. Fortunately for Idaho, the Nez Perce Tribe is the genuine article.
Pat Ford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He has worked in Idaho conservation for 36 years and lives in Boise.