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Megaloads fight hits courtroom; tribe says it’s being ‘pushed into a corner’

An exhausted federal judge, nearing his 10th hour in court, promised late today to have a decision by Friday on the Nez Perce Tribe’s challenge to continued megaload shipments along scenic Highway 12 through its reservation. “I don’t know when we’ll find the time, given what we’re doing now … but we’ll somehow have a decision out before the end of the week,” U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill said after hearing an hour of arguments from both sides in the case; he’d been in another extended trial since early morning, a major white-collar crime case that had been expected to be wrapped up by now, but instead has several weeks left.

Silas Whitman, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, welcomed the prospect of a quick decision. “We need the word one way or another, what’s going to happen,” he said. Whitman said he’s “very concerned” about the prospect of another giant load traversing the route as soon as Sept. 18; Whitman was among those arrested in protests of an earlier, similar load in August. “They’re pushing us into a corner,” he said, “and the last time we were pushed, we left and tried to go to Canada.  We’re tired of being pushed into corners to carry out manifest destiny. That’s not the name of the game any more.”

Bill Heins, vice president and chief operating officer for GE Water and Process Technologies, a subsidiary of General Electric, said he, too, is eager for the judge’s decision. His firm has a giant water evaporator sitting at the Port of Wilma awaiting transport to the Canadian oil sands; he said in court documents that GE will face $3.8 million in fines under its contract if the equipment doesn’t arrive in time. “We’re eager to get this piece of evaporator equipment up to the job site,” Heins said after the court hearing.

Winmill ruled last winter that the U.S. Forest Service has authority to review megaload shipments over the scenic route, which crosses through the Nez Perce Reservation, a federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers corridor, the national forest and numerous historical and recreational sites. The Forest Service has announced plans do a study of the corridor and consult with the Nez Perce Tribe over the matter, and pleaded with the Idaho Transportation Department not to issue permits for more megaloads in the meantime; they are loads so large that they take up both lanes of the two-lane, winding road, creating rolling roadblocks. But ITD issued permits for the August load anyway, and the Forest Service, while noting it hadn’t approved the load, took no action to stop it.

Monday’s arguments centered on whether the court can order the Forest Service to take action, including to close the road temporarily to further megaloads; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.


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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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