Editor’s note: This posting was authored by Pat Ford. Many years ago, Pat served as the executive director of ICL. Most recently, he was the executive director for Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. Pat lives in Boise, Idaho, and periodically contributes to the ICL blog.
A recent court settlement for megaloads on Highway 12 is good for Idaho in a triple lens: conservation, justice and civics.
The Nez Perce Tribe, Idaho Rivers United, Advocates for the West and the U.S. Forest Service have agreed that, within the Clearwater Wild and Scenic River corridor, Highway 12 is generally off limits to truck-trailer hulks tall as two-story houses and near a city block long.
In 2009, Exxon Mobil, the Port of Lewiston, Gov. Butch Otter and others hatched a plan: such beasts would crawl up the tight spirals of Highway 12, over Lolo Pass into Montana, repeatedly and in all seasons for decades, to provide Exxon a least-cost (to itself, that is) transport route for huge machines, that would then chew Alberta boreal forest up for dirty oil. After eight years and a mountain of work fighting goliath, an aroused people with excellent lawyers seem to have stopped it.
Theoretically, Gov. Otter and the state could resist, but after years of self-inflicted punishment that seems like a folly too far. Nor do Exxon et al seem interested in another try. So I will risk categorical statement of at least five results.
- Megaloads will be kept off Highway 12. People who live along and near it will be spared constant grinding intrusion into their lives. The health and uses of the mostly public lands and waters the highway runs through will be spared certain damage and potential disaster.
- The sovereignty and example of the Nez Perce Tribe are expanded. The Nez Perce hold more sway on their reservation, ceded lands and sacred sites. Idaho’s present government will think twice before repeating its bad behavior. Idaho’s next government can reset, make common cause with the tribe a strong policy default, and join the tribe to seek durable human living and faithful relations with non-human life on the patches of earth we share. However the state reacts, the Nez Perce are stronger and it is good.
- Thanks to Idaho and Montana people, Big Oil’s steamroller will not in this case roll over Clearwater Country. Nor roll Idahoans into deeper co-conspiracy to strip Athabaska for oil that is burning our children at the carbon stake. "In this case" is a large caveat; Exxon et al roll people in many ways, which we pay them to keep doing each time we fill our gas tanks. For the good of life on earth we must stop the steamroll wholly, even while being part of it. We can take heart from doing so in this case, and take lessons to do it more.
One lesson is how Exxon’s lack of local grounding-in knowledge, world-view, planning and ethics-cost it dearly. Knowing our places by intimate inch does not assure we can hold them, but it gives us a lever and a loyalty that Big Oil and its fellows have not.
- The state of Idaho’s effort to shore up the foundering Lower Snake waterway achieved the opposite. Whether measured by business, employment, risk/opportunity ratios for Lewiston, or balances of power, in Idaho the lower Snake dams have lost ground to the Nez Perce and others working to free the river.
- Human connections were made and mattered. More people in Idaho and western Montana now know and care about the boreal forest and its people. What started for me as one more reason to fight goliath on Highway 12, became for me, and I think others, one more place to work for and a discovery of far northern neighbors to work alongside.
I know that in 2011 two former First Nations chiefs came to Lapwai to meet Nez Perce leaders and then Salish-Kootenai leaders in Montana. George Poitras, Francois Paulette and their people live downstream of the forest shield now named "the tar sands." Soon after the meetings both the Nez Perce and Salish-Kootenai Tribes formally opposed the megaloads. Both tribes may well have done so anyway, and I was not there, but I am sure the connection-government-to-government, person-to-person, home-to-home-was powerful and lasting.
The state of Idaho lost, but Idaho won. Thank you to many for this improbable outcome, especially thank you to the largish small circle at its hub. I know you are vigilant it will stay done.