Friday, March 18, 2011

Megaloads tread on Idaho values


The Clearwater and Lochsa river valleys in the month of February offer a stark and beautiful mix of steep canyon walls laced with snow, ice and dense stands of conifers. It's a place of unparalleled beauty.

This past February, I watched as the first of potentially hundreds of super-sized megaloads lumbered west through this picturesque place, tearing down tree limbs and prying rocks from cliffs. The sight of these huge hunks of steel working through such a pristine place reinforced in me the need to protect Idaho's special places. It made me think about what's worth protecting.

In addition to their beauty, the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers provide habitat for a variety of songbirds and waterfowl. Their waters give life to elk, otters and bears, not to mention wild salmon and steelhead, and native trout.

The Clearwater and Lochsa corridor is also a special outdoor playground. It's a destination for whitewater rafters and kayakers who travel to Idaho from around the world to challenge the Lochsa's wild rapids. It's a paradise for hikers, hunters, fishermen, cyclists and campers who enjoy the abundant wildlife, peaceful campgrounds and forested countryside.

Along with other special Idaho places like Hells Canyon, the Sawtooth Mountains, Owyhee Canyonlands and Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the Clearwater and Lochsa Wild and Scenic River corridor is among Idaho's most precious places. Among the first rivers protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, they have national significance, too. Championed by Idaho Sen. Frank Church, the Middle Fork of the Clearwater and Lochsa—along with the Selway River—were protected for our children's children because of their unique scenic, recreational, cultural and historic values.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service—the agency charged with protecting these special rivers—has stood on the sidelines while Gov. Butch Otter and the Idaho Transportation Department gave away our Wild and Scenic values to oil giant ExxonMobil.

That's why Idaho Rivers United filed suit against the agency last week in Boise's U.S. District Court. We are challenging the Forest Service to defend our rivers and oppose ExxonMobil's plan to transport hundreds of megaloads up U.S. Highway 12 and through the Clearwater and Lochsa Wild and Scenic river corridor.

The Exxon megaloads are not typical, oversized, overweight commercial truckloads that ply our highways every day. We don't have a problem with those. But pushed and pulled by two tractors each, Exxon's megaloads of mining equipment are extreme—up to 24 feet wide, 200 feet long and three stories tall. They'll weigh up to 600,000 pounds each.

Built in Korea and bound for the tar sands mines in Canada, ExxonMobil wants to move its equipment using rolling roadblocks that will tie up both lanes of the winding, narrow highway. That will delay traffic and block roadside turnouts in ways that will keep recreationists from reaching the river, trailheads and favorite fishing holes.

If they don't do anything else, the loads will turn the attention of national forest visitors away from the God-given beauty, color and energy of this inspiring Wild and Scenic River corridor toward the massive hunks of lifeless steel creeping up the highway or parked along the river's edge.

Allowing the state to permit movement of these monstrous industrial contraptions through the Clearwater/Lochsa river corridor is an affront to all Idahoans who love this place. It's a blow to the memory of the late Sen. Church, and all the work he did to protect the rivers.

This egregious violation of our nation's first Wild and Scenic rivers is akin to building a seven-story hotel on the shores of Redfish Lake—or placing a McDonald's float-through at Velvet Falls Rapid on the Middle Fork of the Salmon.

The megaloads have no place in the Clearwater and Lochsa corridor. They don't fit, and we hope the Forest Service will see that before our trial begins.

Kevin Lewis is conservation policy director of Idaho Rivers United, a statewide, nonprofit river conservation group.

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