The most interesting fish in the world splashed through US Highway 12 last weekend in celebration of the recent success of grassroots activists, Idaho conservation groups, the Nez Perce Tribe, and government officials in Montana. These groups banded together last year to protect the Clearwater-Lochsa Wild & Scenic River corridor, which was under threat of becoming a permanent parking lot and transit route for hundreds of Imperial Oil/Exxon Mobil’s road-closing, high and wide loads of industrial equipment.
The Highway 12 corridor and the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers are among the first rivers protected in 1968 with passage of the federal Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. They are home to important populations of salmon and listed wild steelhead and bull trout, provide important breeding and nesting grounds for harlequin ducks, are are habitat for a variety of other mammals, raptors and songbirds. The rivers also provide diverse recreation opportunities such as hunting, fishing, hiking and kayaking.
Last year, Imperial Oil/Exxon Mobil proposed to use Highway 12 and Lolo Pass to transport 220 loads of oil-refinery equipment, each weighing up to 580,000 pounds and measuring up to 200 feet in length, to their tar-sands operation in Canada. Allowing Highway 12 to be converted into a high-and-wide route for these loads would have changed the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers and their recreation opportunities forever.
Lin Laughy and Borg Hendrikson of Kooskia, Idaho decided to take action against the megaloads by leading grassroots protests. Idaho Rivers United, other conservation groups, the Nez Perce Tribe, and government officials in Montana also joined the fight. Last March, Idaho Rivers United filed a lawsuit demanding that Wild & Scenic protections for the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers be upheld by denying megaloads access to Highway 12.
By applying pressure in both federal court and in the court of public opinion, these groups managed to change the plan for Exxon and its subsidiaries. The company reduced the size of its loads and shipped them through Moscow and Coeur d’Alene and I-90 instead. Imperial/Exxon has indicated that the Highway 12 route through the Wild & Scenic corridor remains an option for the company should legal hurdles clear, so IRU’s lawsuit, which still awaits hearing, remains imperative.
This is the kind of success story that gives Lonesome Larry hope for the future of his species. Grassroots movements like this one, begun and pursued by volunteers who truly care, are effective in protecting and preserving the rivers and species we love. Similar conservation movements, including the national campaign to save wild Snake and Columbia River salmon, will always depend on grassroots activists for support.