The wild and scenic values of river corridors west of Lolo Pass got two votes of support this week, both focused on the impact of hauling megaloads along U.S. Highway 12.
A U.S. Forest Service report said allowing frequent use of the riverside highway for delivering huge pieces of oilfield equipment would degrade the unique combination of wilderness, pristine waterways and a national historic trail.
The report included discussions with the Nez Perce Tribe, whose leaders sued the Forest Service in an attempt to exert their treaty rights and prevent megaload shipments in areas they believe are culturally significant.
On Wednesday, the nonprofit group American Rivers will list both the Clearwater and Lochsa in its “Most Endangered Rivers” report. While the two announcements address concerns over megaload traffic along the river corridors, they are not related.
Nor is it clear if the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest report resolves a federal judge’s order closing the route to loads of Canada-bound evaporators hauled by the Omega Morgan transport company. In a Sept. 12 order, U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill ordered the agency to close the highway to megaload transport “until the Forest Service has conducted its corridor review and consulted with the Nez Perce Tribe.”
“But this is not a decision document, environmental impact statement or NEPA document,” Forest Service spokesman Phil Sammon said Tuesday. “It’s a tool we’ll use to inform other decisions down the road.”
Sammon added the lawsuit is currently in mediation and he could not discuss its progress.
“This study is not a mandatory part of those mediations,” Sammon said, “but our intention is that it will serve the greater discussion around the Highway 12 issue.”
The evaporators in question are 255 feet long, 21 feet wide and 23 feet tall. Each weighs about 644,000 pounds. The first load moved across Lolo Pass on Aug. 8, 2013. But Winmill’s order blocked subsequent loads.
That size, and the slow speeds and delays involved in transport, were the reasons American Rivers considers the rivers’ values threatened, according to the group’s Northern Rockies director in Bozeman, Scott Bosse.
“Normally, we include rivers in the report because they face threats from dams, dewatering or pollution,” Bosse said Tuesday. “But this is about the way people experience the rivers. Allowing megaloads along the Clearwater and Lochsa is like opening industrial haul routes through Yellowstone National Park. It would have profound impacts on that wild and scenic river corridor. And we feel it could set a precedent nationwide.”
Congress makes wild-and-scenic designations, certifying a river has outstanding scenic, recreation and cultural values.
“To have megaload traffic in that river corridor taking pullouts next to campgrounds impacts solitude and the way recreationists experience that river corridor,” Bosse said. “The Forest Service is charged with protecting these special values. The law requires it.”
The Forest Service report noted many of those values would be affected by the Omega-Morgan project.
“There are many places in the Northern Region and Pacific Northwest where the quality of the resource is recognized by a formal designation such as National Historic Trail, Wilderness, or Wild and Scenic River, but nowhere are there so many within the same area with such quality access as there is here,” the report stated. “These designations provide many benefits, including economic, to the public and the local communities nearby.”
“The cultural and natural attributes along this corridor attract visitors from across the country and contribute to sustaining economic niches tied to the corridor,” the report continued. “Occasional oversize loads have historically used Highway 12 with little controversy, many perceive that use of the Highway 12 corridor as a frequent route for oversize hauling could affect the unique setting, recreational experiences and cultural meanings, and special designations found here and nowhere else.”