Ad hoc review failing

State and federal officials once again tackled the question of megaload travel through the Lochsa-Clearwater river corridor in May, when Oregon-based Omega Morgan applied for an oversized load permit in Idaho. The company sought state approval in transporting a 644,000-pound, 255-foot-long water purification vessel along U.S. Highway 12. But a court ruling from earlier this year has presented a new challenge for various agencies.

Idaho Federal Judge Lynn Winmill this February ruled in a case brought forth by megaload opponents that, given the Lochsa-Clearwater's status under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the U.S. Forest Service has the authority to regulate oversized loads on Highway 12. The decision prompted the Idaho Transportation Department to forward Omega Morgan's request to Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell, who reviewed the application based on three interim criteria. Not only did Brazell refuse to support authorization of the company's request, he blasted the ad hoc review process that has stemmed from Winmill's ruling, stating that the application signals a need to define the "physical and intrinsic values" associated with Highway 12.

"Until such an assessment can be completed, and its findings incorporated into an MOU or other agreement between ITD and the Forest Service, I cannot agree to the current ad hoc process of authorizing such use," Brazell wrote in a June 17 letter to ITD.

Brazell's letter officially established three interim criteria that the agency is now considering when defining a "megaload," an unofficial term Brazell says was actually coined by the media. Those criteria are requiring traffic to be fully stopped to allow the load's passage, requiring more than 12 hours of travel time through the corridor, and requiring physical modifications to the highway or adjacent vegetation. Omega Morgan's load—destined for the Alberta tar sands via Montana—triggered all three.

One of Brazell's primary concerns, as indicated by the letter, is the need to include formal consultation with the Nez Perce Tribe in any megaload approval process. Those consultations "may take substantial time." Craig Trulock, district ranger on the Lochsa and Powell ranger districts, adds that groups like Idaho Rivers United, which won the lawsuit before Winmill in February, will also need to be included to thoroughly define what the corridor's intrinsic values are. The process of establishing those values for all impacted parties will likely take months, he says.

"We need to do some sort of look at it with a social science view to better understand what those intrinsic values, spiritual values, cultural values are," Trulock says. "I think we can do a good job of mitigating physical impacts, but we don't understand those other values as much."

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