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Lewis and Clark were more into eating horses than scenery as they traveled west through the snowy Lochsa/Clearwater country in September 1805.

Indeed, the route they and generations of Nez Perce Indians and fellow Pacific Northwest residents used to get over the Bitterroot Mountains swung to the ridges above, mostly out of sight of alluring river pools, cedar groves and lush vegetation that mark the drive along U.S. Highway 12 in Idaho today.

To many travelers, the river's the thing now. They fish it, float it, ponder its power and revel in its solitude.

Congress recognized as much long ago, when the Lochsa, Selway and Middle Fork of the Clearwater rivers were designated charter members of the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Sponsored by Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, the act placed restrictions on development that would make the rivers tamer and not as scenic.

In subsequent decades, the stretch of Highway 12 from Lewiston to Lolo Pass was recognized first by the state of Idaho and, 10 years ago, by the U.S. Department of Transportation as a scenic byway. That means it possesses at least one of six "intrinsic qualities" - scenic, historic, recreational, cultural, archaeological and natural. In fact, the Northwest Passage National Scenic Byway has all six.

Since 2005, the highway has also belonged to the exclusive club of All-American Roads. Only 30 other scenic byways are judged to both possess more than one of the six intrinsic qualities and be tourist destinations unto themselves.

Now comes the specter of "big rigs" on these scenic stretches - massive loads of oil processing and refining equipment, most of them nearly three stories high, 24 and more feet wide, and at least 200 feet long.

They belong to a couple of the world's biggest oil conglomerates, and 38 megaloads are already wintering at the Port of Lewiston, where they await approval to move by the Idaho and Montana transportation departments.

Four are halves of coke drums from Japan, keystones to a planned maintenance project at the ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings. The others are the first of 207 modules of processing equipment that ExxonMobil's Canadian subsidiary, Imperial Oil, fabricated in South Korea and needs to get to northeastern Alberta for its $8 billion Kearl oil sands project, which is due to go on-line in late 2012.

Governors of both states have voiced their approval of the hauls, emphasizing the economic benefits if they come and the harmful business vibes if they don't.

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But to some of those intimate with the Highway 12 national scenic byway, that's skewing the issue.

"The purpose of the designation, in many ways, is to serve as an economic engine," Linwood Laughy said.

Laughy and his wife, Borg Hendrickson, live beside the byway east of Kooskia, Idaho, and in the corridor protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Writers, business owners and heritage tour guides, their lives and livelihoods are closely tied to their scenic home.

They were two of three original interveners in an injunction this summer that continues to hamstring the ConocoPhillips loads, and that has ramifications of the rippling kind for the more extensive Imperial/Exxon hauls.

Laughy said local citizens and the state Department of Commerce's division of tourism worked hard a decade ago to attain the scenic byway designation from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Such things don't come easy. Idaho has six of America's 150 national scenic byways, Montana has just one - the Beartooth Highway between Red Lodge and Cooke City.

Idaho is good at promoting its attractiveness, Laughy said.

"This state is very conscious what a beautiful state it is, and how many people come here to visit," he said.

Tourism is among the top three industries in Idaho and in north-central Idaho.

"Part of that business, though certainly not all of it, comes down Highway 12," Laughy said. "People take the scenic route."

Usually, he added, that route begins or ends in Montana.

"Plenty of folks overnight in Missoula, then start their Idaho trip in the morning. The Lewis and Clark folks also love the Lolo Trail and the Highway 12 route," he said.

Under federal Department of Transportation guidelines, the Idaho Transportation Department is responsible for administering the corridor management plan, a hefty 96-page package updated in 2006.

As such, it's charged with taking measures to preserve the historic, cultural, recreational and scenic qualities, and with minimizing "intrusions on the visitor's experience."

Those charges have created what Laughy calls a "fox-and-hen-house situation."

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Not only has ITD issued the contested permits to ConocoPhillips and defended the decision in court, it has authorized Conoco's moving company, Emmert International, to barricade more than 100 turnouts along the Idaho route up to 24 hours in advance of each of its four moves.

Foes have long held that the huge nighttime loads will have impacts on campers along the route, if not so much the four Conoco loads as the 207 Exxon modules and whatever comes after them.

"Just the notion of convoys going through there with flashing lights, four miles long at 3 a.m. - that itself is a significant problem," Laughy said.

But the barricades, he thinks, are "the straw that breaks the camel's back."

"When we saw that in the permit, we couldn't believe it. And then at the hearing, the Emmert folks said they had already hired the barricade company," he said. "It was like - you can't do that. It's illegal. That's a game changer."

Not so, says ITD. The department has looked into potential impacts the 207 Imperial/Exxon megaloads pose to the scenic byway designation and discounts them.

"The designation doesn't place any kinds of limitations on commerce or transport on those routes," spokesman Adam Rush said. "The same standards apply to any highway."

The National Scenic Byways Program of 1995 outlines the process for and circumstances of de-designation when a road can no longer meet the criteria that supported its designation. Diminishment of any of the six intrinsic qualities can result in de-designation. So can a state's decision to remove a highway from its own scenic byway listing.

Rush said he doesn't think ITD is pondering such a move to accommodate the big rigs.

"Loads would move at night between 10 p.m. and 5:30 in the morning. They would pull off during the daytime hours, and they would use police escorts and pilot vehicles," he said. "I don't think it's a one-or-the-other type scenario where we're going to say, yeah, we're going to de-designate it."

Laughy said there's a de facto de-designation that's even more harmful - word of mouth. He's already answered questions from AAA and a national bicycle organization that has its own designation of Highway 12 as a cross-country route.

"I don't think it would take long for the traveling public to de-designate this," he said.

Bobbie Bartlett agrees. She's owner of the Lolo Dance Center and Campground on the Montana side of Highway 12.

She worries that online navigation services such as General Motors' OnStar will "red-line" the route if it's viewed as a corridor for traffic-stopping industrial loads.

"My big concerns are impacts on campers, because people just don't like to travel on a route where they're going to be interrupted," Bartlett said last month.

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Bill Worf of Missoula comes at it from a different angle.

"That's all national forest land," said Worf, a retired U.S. Forest Service executive. "There's a wild river down there right alongside. The Forest Service is responsible for maintaining the quality of that wild river, and they're responsible for maintaining the scenery and the opportunity for the public to travel along the historic byway."

Worf, 84, should know whereof he speaks. Upon passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, he was called to Washington, D.C., to administer the act as a special areas staffer for the chief of the Forest Service. When the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was implemented four years later, he oversaw that as well.

Later Worf became the Northern Region's director of recreation and lands, which brought him to Missoula and in close contact with the Lochsa-Selway-Clearwater river corridors.

When Highway 12 was first built through the Clearwater National Forest in the 1960s, Worf said, easements restricted such things as the size of roadside turnouts. He doesn't recall the length limit, but he's sure the 300-foot-long turnouts needed to park the big rigs far surpass it.

"One of our concerns early on was we knew those wheat trucks were going to go through, but we wanted restrictions on the highway that were going to hold them to a reasonable size and speed," he said.

Worf has implored the Forest Service to look at the easement agreement and to get involved in the big rig issue, to ensure the river and byway are protected.

"I'm really concerned with my old agency, because they're not wanting to step up to the plate," he said.

Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

 

 

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