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Protesters persist in challenging mega-loads to tar sands

Wild Idaho areas might seem unrelated to rising tides, but the name “Wild Idaho Rising Tide” connects concern about climate change flooding coastal lowlands with concern about mega-loads going by truck through North Idaho and Montana with equipment to develop tar sands in Northern Alberta.

In the Netherlands, where the Rising Tide organization began, the threat from global warming is real.  In 2006, U.S. affiliates began forming.

Helen Yost
Helen Yost appeals to reason and emotion to move people to act.

In Moscow, Wild Idaho Rising Tide (WIRT) has become Helen Yost’s life.  She lives frugally on $200 a month and donations in the house that is the WIRT office.  She owns but rarely drives a vehicle, relying on others for transportation.

After several years of mega-load shipments to Alberta tar sands over Highway 12 through the Wild and Scenic River Corridor and Nez Perce Reservation, a U.S. District Court judge in Boise ruled Sept. 18 to require consultation with Nez Perce and other tribes over mega-loads.  So the U.S. Forest Service has closed the 100-mile federally protected scenic stretch to mega-loads of Omega Morgan, said Helen.

That followed a Sept. 13 ruling by a federal judge that mega-loads had to be stopped pending review by the U.S. Forest Service on the scenic corridor and Nez Perce tribe concerns.

During the summer, the Nez Perce held teach-ins giving background on mega-loads and protest actions.  Several tribal council members were arrested for blocking a load, calling attention to treaty rights and protecting the scenic river corridor.

The route has campgrounds, rafting and fishing spots, historic sites and scenery that draw tourists from around the world.  The judge said the Forest Service had not exercised its authority over the lands.

mega load at Port of Wilma
Mega-load at port of Wilma, near Clarkston, dwarfs other trucks.

Helen said it’s hard keeping up with ups and downs of court cases and appeals by different companies wanting to use the road. 

Her commitment is to rally people to be physically involved in protesting for the long term, aware shipments may continue until 2030.  She keeps WIRT’s website and facebook pages current with news.

The story of her involvement, however, offers an overview of the effort.

Thinking environmental problems could be addressed by appealing to reason, Helen did undergraduate and graduate studies in conservation and environmental education.

Then, aware of the need to address people’s feelings and attitudes, too, she began doctoral studies in conservation social science at the University of Idaho in Moscow.  In 2011, with 11 credits remaining, she decided to engage people on a visceral level, blocking roads and monitoring mega-loads.

“After years of waiting tables, canning fish, raising funds and doing research, I decided to do what I came on earth to do,” she said.

Friends of the Clearwater and Northern Rockies Rising Tide encouraged her and other activists to start the Rising Tide affiliate. 

Protests at Lochsa
Protesters on the wild and scenic section near Lochsa River.

WIRT, which they formed in March 2011, involves people in direct action to confront causes of climate change and challenge companies that mine, drill or distribute oil, natural gas, coal or nuclear energy. 

It collaborates with Blue Skies Campaign, Coal Export Action, Idaho Residents Against Gas Extraction, Occupy Spokane, Palouse Environmental Sustainability Coalition, the Nez Perce Tribe and other groups.

“The moral question is: How much will we let polluters pollute?” Helen said.  “Climate change kills people. If it continues, forests will burn, oceans will rise, air will be worse, and we won’t be able to live. 

“We engage people in actions to demonstrate our commitment to the wellbeing of the human race and life on the planet.  It’s a religious thing,” said Helen, who grew up in an Irish Catholic family from Illinois.

She moved to Omaha at 16 and left home at 18, hitchhiking and living in tents after coming to the Northwest at 21.  At 23, her love of wild places led her to Alaska, where she worked in canneries and on a fishing boat when the Exxon Valdez oil spill hit. 

Her grief over the damage led her to study wilderness and resource conservation at the University of Montana in Missoula.

Graduating in 1998, her head was full of knowledge and her heart full of love of the natural world.  She wanted to teach people to fall in love with nature. After earning a master’s in environmental education at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, she went to the University of Idaho for doctoral studies.

She set studies aside after learning in May 2010 that ExxonMobil, which did the damage in Alaska, was trucking mega-loads through Idaho to build facilities to tap tar sands north of Edmonton.

The company planned to use narrow, winding Highway 12, the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway that goes through the area designated in 1968 as a Wild and Scenic River Corridor. It follows the Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers through the Clearwater and Nez Perce National Forests near the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness—across the Nez Perce Reservation and along the historic routes used by the Nez Perce Tribe and explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

ExxonMobil chose that route, because there were no overpasses.

Helen and others learned that in 2009, Idaho’s governor, state officials and congressional representatives permitted ExxonMobil to bring 30-foot-high mega-loads up Highway 12. Idaho’s Transportation Department widened the road and added turnouts.  In April 2011, they cut limbs off up to 30 feet high, and ExxonMobil took a load across Highway 12.

Montana knew of mega-loads earlier, because companies had to comply with Montana’s Environmental Policy Act.  There were hearings and court cases in Idaho on ConocoPhilips taking four halves of coke drums on Highway 12 to Billings.

ExxonMobil wanted to transport 207 two-lane-wide loads on 200-foot-long trucks and trailers, she said.  The largest loads were more than 500,000 pounds, compared with standard semi-truck loads of 80,000 pounds.

Oil field equipment, made cheaply in Asia, is shipped to Vancouver, Wash., and floated on barges to ports at Pasco or Lewiston. 

“People wanted to stand on roads to defend the area,” Helen said.  “After we wrote letters and went to hearings, the government permitted the polluters to pollute. Action was a last resort.”

From August 2010 to June 2012, people prevented many mega-loads from using Highways 12 and 95. 

With threats of blockades and court actions, ExxonMobil cut some load heights in half to fit under overpasses.

Some loads came through Spokane at night on Interstate 90, exiting at Altamont and returning at Freya to avoid a pedestrian overpass.  Occupy Spokane and WIRT protested them.

In July 2010, the Nez Perce Tribe adopted a resolution opposing mega-loads crossing their reservation on Highway 12.

Because loads are so large they can block the highway, companies need permits.  Loads had to go only at night and had to use turnouts to avoid blocking traffic for more than 15 minutes. 

“We monitored mega-loads, because sometimes they stopped traffic an hour or two,” she said.

In October 2010, 34 companies sought permits.

Sometimes when mega-loads parked near Worley, protestors took video of undercarriages and put it on YouTube. 

“Fearing we might lock ourselves to undercarriages, they added security, increasing costs,” said Helen.  “Our tactics are to intimidate, confuse and push them back.  We use our power as citizens to say, ‘No, you can’t use our road.’  Citizens are bosses, not corporations.  We find innocent ways to mess up their day.”

Demonstrations have drawn 12 to 150 people—many middle-aged people concerned about global warming. 

“Companies don’t know if we’ll stand beside the road or step onto it, link arms and sit down to block the load,” Helen said.  “Few will step into the street and be arrested.  Most don’t want a court or criminal record, but love it if someone does it for them.  Hundreds of thousands of advocates are cheering. 

“We need people to know how corporations are ruining the planet and what they as citizens can do,” she said.  “We need to act.  Changes in history come because a few people, like abolitionists and suffragettes, are willing to take risks.” 

“Allies brought court cases against ConocoPhilips and ExxonMobil—the epitome of fighting Goliath.  They lost.  In August 2010, they won one stage of a case.  ConocoPhilips took the case to the State Supreme Court, which said the case had to go first to administrative court.”

It went to district court in August 2010 and then to the Supreme Court that October.  In December 2010, the judge said ConocoPhilips could use Highway 12.

The first mega-load went in February 2011 from Lewiston on Highway 12, but didn’t reach Billings until April.  Winter weather and flooding left the truck stranded.  The hauling company went into the red, Helen said.

The administrative case against ExxonMobil was heard in April and May 2011. That judge also said it was okay for them to go.

In 2011, the Idaho State Legislature passed a bill saying anyone who went to district court opposing loads had to put up a bond for five percent of the load’s value.  No one tried, Helen said.

In January 2011, ExxonMobil decided to use other routes than Highway 12.

Over time, 60 loads came from Vancouver, 165 from Pasco and 33 from Lewiston.  Those at Lewiston were split into 75 loads. 

About 165 mega-loads went up Highway 395 and across Interstate 90 to Montana. 

The original plan was for 1,200 loads, but only 350 went.

In July 2011, loads began using Highway 95 through Moscow, where resistance was strong.  When loads went through town, people were on the streets, Helen said.

Companies tried to “sneak” loads through to avoid resisters from July 2011 to March 6, 2012, when the last load went up Highway 95, Helen said. ExxonMobil stopped seeking permits. 

Because of adding security and time, Kearl Oil Sands, which originally estimated the project would cost $8 billion, spent $12 billion, including extra costs for Moscow police. 

In August 2011, six blockaders were arrested for stalling a load for half an hour.   The next week, there were 40 police.  There were about 40 protests against loads using Highway 95.  There were protests three nights a week.

In June 2012, an ExxonMobil load was stranded near Lolo Pass for more than a year by a Montana court case.  It had to be taken apart for scrap metal.  It snapped a wire and cut power to thousands of people, she said.

Other loads have hit a tree branch, rock outcroppings, guardrails and a motor home. Two stalled vehicles carrying heart attack victims. Two caused accidents, one blocking 25 cars.

In the summers of 2011 and 2012, Helen went to the tar sands in Alberta to see how machines dig up to 300 feet below the surface and dump trucks take materials to processing plants. 

Last winter, Idaho Rivers United went to the Boise federal court.  On Feb. 6, 2013, a judge ruled that the Forest Service and Federal Highway Administration have jurisdiction over whether mega-loads can use the Wild and Scenic River Corridor and national forests.  The agencies had until April 8 to appeal, and did not.

“Allies had a letter-writing campaign to ask the Forest Service and Federal Highway Administration to uphold their jurisdiction.  The Forest Service is developing a protocol for what they will or will not allow,” Helen said.

She hopes policies will discourage other companies—there are about 40—from using Highways 12 or 95.  That leaves Highway 395 to I-90 to Butte and north on Interstate 15 into Alberta.

In addition to the mega-loads, WIRT is challenging other projects such as fracking in Idaho.

“Despite my efforts, I find it hard to protect the wild places I love,” Helen said.  “When the wealthiest, most powerful corporations come to wild areas, indigenous people, people of color and low-income people are hurt.  Our military fights wars on behalf of oil companies.

“We need to develop renewable and small-scale energy sources.  We need to stop subsidizing energy companies,” she said.

For information, call 208-301-8039 or visit

Copyright © October 2013 - The Fig Tree