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Down the highway

idaho RANDY

U.S. Highway 12 begins in downtown Detroit and from there runs 2,491 miles generally northwest largely along the old Yellowstone Trail, ending at its intersection with U.S. 101 in the port and industrial town of Aberdeen, Washington. Those two ends, and pieces of what lie between, reflect one of the reasons for building the road: To move not only passengers but also industrial commerce.

The Idaho portion from Lewiston to the Lolo Pass at the Montana line, was the last of this road to be built, and the last major highway project in Idaho in the early 60s, reflecting how challenging a piece of road this is. Drive it – if you haven’t, you really should – and you’ll see some of Idaho’s most spectacular country, twisting along the banks of the Clearwater River, then by the Lochsa River as the road spirals upward into the rugged Bitterroot Mountains. It is truly one of Idaho’s great rides.

But drive it carefully and defensively. This is not like most highways in southern Idaho, and not even much like U.S. 95 running north and south in Idaho. There are few straight lines on U.S. 12, and it is not a wide road. Accidents are common. Even drivers of small cars may find it challenging; wrecks involving larger trucks are the stuff of periodic local lore.

Tension between commercial and industrial elements of the road’s purpose, alongside its driving qualities and environmental concerns, drives the megaload conflict.

Which is accelerating. The current round started after the Hillsboro, Oregon firm Omega Morgan applied for permits to move up the rpad a massive water purification unit, destined for Alberta’s oil fields. It is a road-occupier, 21 feet wide, weighing about 644,000 pounds. Area residents are concerned about damage to the road and environment, about road blockage (if an emergency vehicle had to get past?), and more. And not just about this load: In recent years, there’s been talk of possibly hundreds of megaloads coming through; Omega Morgan suggestd it wants to make 10 such shipments down Highway 12 before 2014. Protesters include a group called The Rural People of Highway 12 Fighting Goliath, the Nez Perce Tribe and possibly the Forest Service.

Protests ballooned at Lewiston, Orofino and elsewhere. Rocks were thrown. The road was sabotaged. Arrests were made.

By the time you read this the load may have crossed into Montana. Regardless, there will be, surely, a next time. And here’s a thought about that.

When, as in this case, you have tension between competing and real needs, the appropriate response is not lines in the sand but rather their erasure – in other words, compromise. No one really disputes the need to send commercial traffic along Highway 12; the only real questions are how much, how large (just how large should be too large?), how often, and with what provisions for safety and other concerns.

Some of those things are addressed, loosely, in state and federal rules. But they’re evidently not being addressed well enough, because if they were, we likely wouldn’t be seeing the kind of strong and increasingly widespread protesting reaction we’re seeing.

Political leaders: Anyone interested in trying to work out a resolution for the next time around, before more rocks are thrown and arrests made? It more or less falls under your job description.

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