LEWISTON – A procession crept its way along Highway 12 just northeast of downtown here as the clock struck midnight.
Filling the roadway was a piece of oil refinery equipment, weighing in at more than 300 tons, pulled by a big rig and led by dozens of law enforcement vehicles. Walking slowly alongside the shoulder and in chest-high sage grass were more than 50 protesters representing the Nez Perce tribe and environmental groups.
For a second straight night, protesters attempted to block the progress of the so-called megaload truck permitted by the state to haul the equipment along Highway 12 through Nez Perce lands. Though the truck eventually broke the line of protesters after more than an hour, tribal leaders called the demonstration a success.
“I would state to the delegation, or anybody else who has an authority that should have listened, that they should listen now,” Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee member Anthony Johnson said early Wednesday.
Tribal members expressed frustration Tuesday with both the Idaho Transportation Department and the U.S. Forest Service for authorizing the haul and not asserting the legal authority to halt it, respectively.
Rick Brazell, Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests supervisor, said earlier Tuesday his department was waiting on additional data from wildlife and cultural studies before making what he said could be construed as an “arbitrary and capricious” decision.
“You can’t make decisions just on emotion,” Brazell said. “You’ve got to have the facts. That’s how you win the war.”
That emotion was clearly on display Tuesday night. After gathering at a river access point a quarter mile from where the megaload truck stopped before dawn Tuesday, protesters began hiking westward along Highway 12 to a ramp where the roadway splits from Highway 95. At around 10:30 p.m., the Omega Morgan truck that had sat idle began to rumble to life, and a fleet of Nez Perce Tribal Police, County Sheriff, and Idaho State Police vehicles began moving toward a crowd of protesters blocking the roadway.
Law enforcement officers gave protesters 15 minutes to speak out unimpeded. At one point, tribal members were informed they were creating a public nuisance by officers. To which one protester responded, “We’re protecting our sovereignty.”
Protesters were then asked to move off the paved roadway and onto the shoulder to allow law enforcement vehicles and the truck to pass. Most protesters did, though a few truculently remained in the roadway and had to be coaxed to the side by friends and family members.
Not all members of the tribe adhered strictly to the group’s plan to not agitate law enforcement, Johnson said.
“We had a few young people taking matters into their own hands,” Johnson said.
That included heaving rocks into the roadway, which crew workers and law enforcement officers had to remove.
“I’ve seen an escalation here that I did not want to see,” Johnson said. Johnson said several tribal members were arrested, but couldn’t provide an exact number. Nineteen protesters, including all members of the Nez Perce executive committee, were arrested Monday night.
Many expressed their dissatisfaction with tribal law enforcement and Omega Morgan through signs and chants. Sarah Hennessey, on crutches because of a horse-riding accident, carried a sign with the Nez Perce word translating to “Go back.” Tribal member Elliott Moffett chanted, “No megaload!” and pointed his thumbs down disapprovingly as the cab rolled by.
“I’ve been a lifelong user of the corridor,” Moffett said. “My dad, and his dad, and on and on.”
Tribal members weren’t the only ones expressing disapproval about the environmental effects of the truck and its load Tuesday night. Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, marched along side-by-side with Nez Perce members as the megaload truck crept toward the Montana border.
“I’m here tonight to show solidarity with the tribe,” said Sedivy, who traveled from Boise during the day Tuesday to be with protesters in the evening. His group successfully challenged the megaload shipments through Idaho based on a federal law protecting scenic highways and byways, a ruling that necessitated Forest Service and tribal compliance with any shipments.
The legal process is likely the next recourse for the Nez Perce tribe. Several members mentioned Tuesday night the intent of the tribe to file an injunction in district court as early as Wednesday that would halt the passage of this load through the reservation and, ultimately, national forestland.
“This guy may be moving,” Sedivy said Tuesday night, motioning to the megaload truck slowly lumbering past. “But we’ll have our day.”