The amber flashers of the first pilot truck in a convoy bearing a gigantic piece of processing gear destined for the oil sands of Alberta, Canada rounded a distant corner in the darkness at the edge of the Nez Perce Reservation.
The cry went up just after midnight on Monday August 5, the beginning of a protest against mega-loads through Nez Perce territory along scenic Highway 12 in North Central Idaho. By Friday August 9, 30 tribal members and their leaders had been arrested.
Foremost among them on August 5 was Tribal Chairman Silas Whitman, who joined six members of the tribe’s Executive Council, grabbing wooden barriers and striding out onto U.S. Highway 12. A rush of more than 200 tribal members and others—from grandmothers to children—followed, all determined to stop a football-field-sized mega-load from passing through their sacred lands.
A phalanx of Idaho State Police cruisers idling in the darkness nearby flipped on their headlights and rooftop light bars and rolled to within yards of the blockade. It was an eerie blue-and-red strobe-lit standoff: Tribal members sang and drummed and whooped, while stony state and tribal police faced them, arms crossed. Looming behind the police came the mega-load, its cylindrical face appearing as an enormous ghostly moon, swathed in a white tarp.
The 23-foot-high load was a water evaporation unit that weighed 644,000 pounds and, hooked up on dollies with a diesel truck at front and back, was nearly as long as a football field at 243 feet. It ate up nearly two full lanes of road.
The blockade lasted for two hours. Whitman and his council members were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and taken to the county jail along with a dozen other tribal protesters.
It was one of many protests that the Nez Perce are planning against mega-loads destined for the Alberta oil sands. Feeling ignored by state and federal officials, and increasingly concerned that oil companies are working with Idaho to convert the federally designated Wild and Scenic portions of Highway 12 into an industrial high-and-wide corridor to the oil sands, the Nez Perce have been riled into direct action, Whitman and others said.
The protests came as the Nez Perce prepared to mark the anniversary of the battle of the Big Hole from the 1877 war.
By Friday August 9, at least 30 people had been arrested. The nightly protests and blockades and youngsters placing rocks in the highway had slowed but not stopped the mega-load as it lurched across Idaho’s narrow panhandle, escorted by increasing numbers of police.
A complaint was filed late Thursday in U.S. District Court in a last-ditch attempt to halt it.
The passage of this week’s mega-load over opposition from both the Forest Service and the tribe is an attack on sovereignty Whitman said at a hastily called press conference at the Nez Perce casino on Monday night.
But the Nez Perce are also protecting their fellow First Nations up in Canada, Whitman said, tribal people being sickened by pollution related to tar sands mining. The tribe feels a duty to try and stop equipment from reaching the sites, he and other council members said.
“Even if we were supportive of mega-loads in the wilderness corridor, we oppose the final use of the product,” Whitman said. “We tie this together with the [Keystone] XL pipeline. We want to help our brothers and sisters in the First Nations of Canada, and the Sioux Nation and the Oklahoma and Nebraska tribes.”
The fight in Idaho goes back to 2008 when oil companies led by Exxon Mobil’s Canadian subsidiary, Imperial Oil, found an unlikely way to the tar sands that was not blocked by tunnels or low overpasses and was far shorter than the usual method of shipping to Houston. The new way involved barging the loads up the Columbia and Snake rivers to Lewiston, Idaho, and trucking over Lolo Pass—a historic route used by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805 and for intertribal trade between the Pacific coast and the plains long before that. Once over the shoulder of the Bitterroot Mountains, the loads turn north through Montana to the oil sands.
Residents only learned of the oil companies’ interest in their narrow, twisting remote highway when utility crews came through to raise the power lines, followed by trimmers to limb roadside trees. A court fight was launched to try and compel the Forest Service to enforce the values that come with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and with the highway’s designation as a wild and scenic roadway. One-hundred miles of Highway 12 traverse forested federal lands along the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers. Significant Nez Perce cultural and sacred sites—from the Ant and the Yellowjacket rock arch and the Heart of the Monster formation central to the place that the tribe originated—also lie along the route.
In February, U.S. Magistrate B. Lynn Winmill ruled that the Forest Service does have authority to regulate mega-loads. But the Idaho Transportation Department says it is not affected by the federal ruling, and on Friday August 2 the state issued a permit for shipping company Omega Morgan to haul the mega-load to Alberta. The department’s deputy director did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages from ICTMN asking to explain why the permit was issued when new stakeholders, the Forest Service and the tribe, have joined the permitting process. Officials at Omega Morgan also refused to be directly available for questions.
The request for an injunction is likely too late to stop the load that was slowed by tribal blockades, but it may halt the next one, which is already offloaded at the port of Wilma, and the eight more that Omega Morgan has lined up after that.
Even as the mega-load trundled heavily away from his Nez Perce homeland, Whitman said he had reached out to other tribes along the route to take action.
“This is not over by a long shot.”