From August 7-9, activists in Powell, Idaho, led by the Nez Perce tribe of the Pacific Northwest, engaged in a standoff against a truckload of oil refinery equipment that was headed to Alberta, Canada. The problem? The truck was illegally advancing through tribal lands and a federally-protected river area. The vehicle passed the blockade on August 10 and is now making its way back to Alberta, but the controversy remains: the truck moved forward without the authorization of the U.S. Forest Service. And yet, it was the Native Americans and environmentalists who were arrested and charged with misdemeanors.
The specific materials being transported included a giant water evaporator. Though the vehicle had received a permit from the Idaho Transportation Department to pass through these lands, it had not obtained the others it needed from the Forest Service and the Federal Highway Administration. The Oregon-based shipping company, Omega Morgan, attempted to slip the megaload through unnoticed by federal agencies or Nez Perce people, according to EcoWatch.
Resultantly, the Nez Perce tribe is filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service, noting that its failure to stop the truckload from passing through the river corridor was "arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion." The tribe is also seeking an injunction that would block the transport of future megaloads in the area until the Service conducts a review of their impacts on the federally protected Wild and Scenic River Corridor.
Idaho Rivers United, a conservation organization, is supporting the tribe on this matter. "It's incomprehensible that the Forest Service didn't have the backbone to enforce its own rules," said IRU executive director Bill Sedivy.
The tar sands refinery to which the megaload was headed is the same destination that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would transport oil to. That project, of course, is highly controversial because, like the truck that so outraged Nez Perce, it would run directly through sensitive lands and tribal territories. And like the looming threat of that pipeline, it is not difficult to see why the Nez Perce people view this as an invasion of their pristine environment.
"Everything is here," said Silas Whitman, chairman of the Nez Perce tribal executive committee, who was arrested with the rest of the blockade in Powell. "White-tail deer, cougars, black bears, mountain goats; rivers teeming with salmon and trout. And yet, they want to make this an industrial corridor." Whitman was there with his 10 year-old granddaughter when he was cuffed with the rest of the protesters. The police were reportedly "very forceful" and determined to quickly break up the blockade.
He added that the government has a duty to consult the tribe before allowing these types of activities on their land, and that in this case, that hasn't been done.
"We can't sit back any longer," said tribe member Leotis McCormack. "We can't allow our people to be subject to this disrespect any longer." If this could happen without consulting the tribe, he said, what else could happen? Could it escalate to the point of actual tampering with the environment? "If that door opens," he finished, "it's going to be hard to close."
Photo: The blockade, comprised of mostly Nez Perce tribal members and activists, in a showdown against a megaload carrying oil refinery equipment in Powell, Idaho. AP