Lapwai, Idaho—If Exxon Mobile Corp., ConocoPhillips and other conglomerates have their way, 140-ton, 210-foot-long mega-load trucks may soon be rumbling within 50 feet of the site of the Nez Perce’s creation myth.
The mega-loads are huge pieces of mining equipment, several times the size of a logging truck, and will occupy both lanes of Highway 12 as it winds alongside the wild and scenic Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers. The route is named the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway and essentially follows the route that Lewis and Clark traveled.
The road is particularly important to the Nez Perce Tribe for a variety of reasons, prompting the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee to pass a resolution opposing the use of Highway 12 for transporting these loads.
Forty such loads have already been shipped up the Columbia River by barge to the Port of Lewiston and are awaiting the ok to move. They are some of the more than 200 such trips planned under the auspices of the Kearl Module Transportation Project, planned by a subsidiary of ExxonMobile. At the moment the shipments are in limbo at Lewiston pending approval from the State of Idaho to be moved up Highway 12 and into Montana.
Another project by ConocoPhillips has four loads to go to Billings, Montana. The mega-load issue has long been deemed a mega-problem, discussed at meeting after meeting and rehashed in the mainstream press for months.
“Seventy miles of the route is within the reservation boundary, and beyond that all the territory up to the Lolo is all Nez Perce country, all ceded territory, and the tribe has off-reservation reserved rights all along there,” said McCoy Oatman, chairman of the executive committee. “The route is the main thoroughfare for the tribe and tribal community. The majority of our communities are located on that route. The majority of our population traverses that and uses it as access for hunting, fishing and gathering.”
Moreover, he added, “They will also be traveling really close to our creation story. It’s called ‘The Heart of the Monster.’ It’s essentially the birthplace of the Nez Perce people. It (the route) runs dangerously close to that site, and that’s pretty significant for us.”
The route actually passes within about 50 feet of this basaltic formation, near where the place along the highway where visitors can stop and hear the myth. A portion of the Nez Perce Historical Trail, the route taken by the tribe’s members in their attempt to elude the U.S. Army during their war in 1877, is included along this route as well.
The Nez Perce Tribe has made their concerns known to the state and found that they’re not alone in their opposition. The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians last year passed a resolution opposing mega-loads.
Numerous local groups and individuals have publicly expressed their concern and opposition. The U.S. Forest Service expressed reservations as recently as mid-January, suggesting that allowing these shipments could harm the agency’s ability to manage the river corridor and retain its Wild and Scenic designation. There were also cultural and historical considerations born of further concerns about the frequency of shipments. Safety, damage to the roadway and gridlocking traffic have individuals up in arms.
McCoy refuted charges that the Nez Perce are anti-business.
“We’re not anti-business,” he said. “That’s one of the things they’re (oil companies) touting, the business they’ll bring. The Nez Perce Tribe is one of the largest employers in this region. We employ Indians and non-Indians and want to see the economy improve, but we want the process to be responsible and respectful to our tribal sovereignty.”
Most of the loads are designated for the oil sands of Alberta. Barge traffic on the Columbia and Snake Rivers would bring them to Lewiston, and the highway from there would lead over Lolo Pass into Montana and through the Blackfoot country into Alberta. Organizations along the route have formed in opposition but no section might face more severe consequences than the section through Idaho via Nez Perce country.