Use of scenic U.S. 12 for megaloads across north central Idaho likely dead

Orofino, Idaho. The Clearwater National Forest has denied  the use of U.S. Highway 12 along the famed Lochsa River for the transport of megaloads bound for what some call the “tar sands hell” of south central Alberta.

While the bulk of this battle was successfully fought a couple years ago by opponents  of the transport of this huge machinery along the narrow two-lane highway, the U.S. Forest Service had remained on the sidelines.

U. S. 12 in Idaho runs from Lewiston to Lolo Pass on the Montana border. Almost all of the route is 2-lanes, and in a canyon that narrows and grows more scenic as you travel upstream toward Montana.  Most of the route on U.S. Forest Service land is in the corridor of a unit of the wild and scenic rivers system — the Middle Fork of the Clearwater and the Lochsa River.

In the past the Forest Service had improperly, it turned out, ceded its authority and duty to regulate traffic on the road to the Idaho Department of Transportation (IDT).  IDT had authorized the transport of tar sand bound, greatly oversized loads (termed “megaloads”) up the narrow highway. The Forest Service had been silent.  Local citizens protested, organized and hired the Idaho-based law firm Advocates for the West to fight the transport to prevent damage to the river, local and tourist traffic, and unlawful degredation of one of the original units of the national Wild and Scenic rivers system.

A few megaloads were transported before they were stopped by protests by Idaho and Montana residents and lawsuits. Idaho U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill  finally ruled last February that the lack of action by the  Forest Service was wrong. Indeed, it had the obligation, not ITD, to regulate the megaloads so as to protect the wild and scenic river corridor. The Wildlife News covered this controversy in detail due to the effect conversion of Highway 12 to a wider industrial corridor would have on the stunning fish and wildlife of this mostly wilderness area (except for the highway corridor).

Although the oil interests didn’t like it, they found other ways to get their material to the tar sands by other routes which often required breaking down the size of the loads.

Recently, however, ITD got a new application to run nine megaloads up U.S. 12. It was from an outfit named Omega Morgan.  The biggest load would weigh 644,000 pounds; was  255 feet long and 21 feet wide.

This time the Forest Service (the Clearwater National Forest) told ITD “no.” The proposal violated all three principles it had established in response to Judge Winmill’s ruling.  The principles are, to paraphrase, regular traffic should not have to stop to allow passage of the load. No more than 12 hours can pass to get the load through the wild and scenic rivers corridor. There can be no physical modifications made of the highway or the roadside vegetation.

The quick, preemptive action by the Forest Service likely means U.S. 12 will no longer be considered as a possible route for megaloads.  The Highway 12 route had been deemed desirable mostly because it had no overpasses like those on Interstate highways.



  1. Barb Rupers Avatar
    Barb Rupers

    This is welcome news! I thought it rather sad that U.S. Highway 12 was ever built down the Lochsa; that and the Dworshak Dam on the NF Clearwater.

  2. alf Avatar

    Not surprisingly, the Idaho Department of Transportation — Idaho being Idaho — saw the travesty as only an engineering problem : vegetation to remove, turnouts to build, curves to straighten, etc.; and ignored all cultural, scenic, wildlife and other natural values. And
    the forestry circus, in typical fashion, sat on the sidelines with its thumb up its bunghole and did nothing until forced to by higher authority.

  3. save bears Avatar
    save bears

    These loads have no business on the highway, they should be shipped via sea and trucked through canada from their east coast

  4. CodyCoyote Avatar

    I led the coalition thjat got the Shoshone National Forest AND the Wyoming Department of Transportation to collectively tell the State of Montana they could not use the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway in northwest Wyoming to haul 2000 truckloads of mine tailings to a smelter near Butte MT from Cooke City MT.

    The blunt instrument used by the Forest Service was NEPA. The Shoshone district ranger said he would insist on a full 2-3 year environmental assessment. The blunt instrument used by Wy-DOT was the threat of portable weight scales and some serious D.O.T. roadside inspections. Wy-DOT originally OK’d the plan till local Legislators started leaning in at my behest once I laid out the totality of this trucking scheme.

    The clock was ticking for the Montana State Department of Environmental Quality who was using federal Abandoned Mine Lands money grants to help fund this , and they simply could not wait for the EA to conclude. The Wy-DOT mitigation was going to make it very hard for them to do this as well.

    The scheme evaporated. The Montna DEQ actually thought they could use a Wyoming STATE highway as a haul road to take old mine tailings to a smelter, refine them , and put millions in their own state treasury without paying Wyoming a dime or giving logistical assurances.

    So they ended up reclaiming all the old mine tailings on location. They had been using the threat of a magnitude 7.5 earthquake as the dire need to remove those old tailings…500,000 tons…and drive them 400 miles one way to be conveniently smelted into gold bars. Seismicity my pink patooty…they were going into the gold business when the prices was hovering at $ 1700 / ounce and running roughshod over Wyoming’s first and finest Scenic Highway to do it.


    It took a grassroots coalition and some serious politicking to do this. Point is: It can be done.

    Now we’ll see if there is any fallout from above on the Lochsa megaload decision. I do not yet hear a Fat Lady doing an aria…

  5. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    Cody Coyote,

    Thanks for telling the story. I sort of remember the issue from when I was on the GYC Board of Directors. I’m so glad you won.

    Advocates for the West is saying the that the husky gal has now performed her song, but I’m not entirely sure because the oil industry is tireless. However,alternative transport routes have been developed and used.

    I don’t know why Omega Morgan applied for a permit after the track record of failure of its predecessors and the subsequent ruling by Judge Winmill.

  6. ZeeWolf Avatar

    Good News, Ralph!

    Now, the next step would be to close down that highway once and for all.

    1. WM Avatar


      Interesting concept – closing down US 12 – but that would kill the only road lifeline from Lewiston to Orofino and points east of the only and incredibly important secondary US road system. And since Orofino is the location of a state prison and a mental hospital where is ID to warehouse their societal misfits? It would also limit access for all those steelhead fishers on the Clearwater River that reap the benefit of the largest steelhead hatchery (so the sign says) in the world. Oh, dear.

      But I am certainly glad the megaload stuff was killed – hopefully forever.

      1. ZeeWolf Avatar

        WM – I’m satisfied that megaloads won’t be allowed over U.S. 12.

        My comment over closing the highway was specifically the portion of U.S. 12 between Kooskia (or Lowell, for that matter) and Lolo Hot Springs in Montana, along the Lochsa River.

        The highway does not show up on my 1956 Rand McNally and could be considered a recent addition to the national highway system. I doubt that the overall U.S. economy would be irrevocably harmed without that portion of highway.

        The only people who use the highway are local and those going between Lewiston and Missoula. I must admit my comment was more about reclaiming the Lochsa River for those who appreciate wildlands sans roads. The indirect cost (which I hadn’t thought about at first) would be the additional fuel spent used to detour to the north, the presumable alternative before the highway was built in the first place.

        But, yeah, it sure ticks people off when it is suggested that a road shouldn’t be were it is. Heck, I wouldn’t even suggest closing the road from Lewiston to Kooskia, via Orofino… I don’t suppose it would work very well to have the social misfits walk to their hospital. On the other hand, maybe it would do them some good, fresh air and all that… The steelhead fishers could walk in or pack, too; but I’m sure that would go over like a lead (metal) zeppelin.

        1. WM Avatar

          Something to be said for your comment about closing the upper part of US 12, nostalgically anyway, from my perspective. I remember going over what was called the Lochsa – Selway Divide with my folks, when I was a little shaver in the 60’s. Seemed like a long drive at the time, and the roads marginal. It was pretty wild country back then. Then back to US 12 (or what was to become 12 as it was incorporated into the federal highway system, and it is important to remember the federal highway system serves a national defense function). Of course, as you say 12 is really the only relatively quick way to get from MT (specifically via Missoula to Lewiston, then continuing on to Tri Cities/Yakima and beyond). And, Lolo Pass can, at times, be a real white knuckle drive in winter. A relative, who lived in Missoula, used to grouse about going over the Lolo and driving winding 12, in mid-winter on his way to Yakima. The alternative would have been I-90 way to the north, and added a bunch of miles and driving time, even though on freeway, much of the distance.

    2. Rtobasco Avatar

      Zee wolf – seems that in your world man and his presence is a very bad thing. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could just drive all of mankind out and return the world to the wildlife. Why don’t you lead the way?

      1. ZeeWolf Avatar

        I had forgotten about this…

        Rtobasco – In your comment above you stated:

        “seems that in your world man and his presence is a very bad thing.”

        I’m not sure how you came to that conclusion just because I suggested decommisioning one relatively lightly used 74 mile stretch of secondary highway. I am generally for moderation of most things, including human-kind’s affect on nature and the natural world. For example, I enjoy clean, clear mountain water running from a crystal-clear spring as opposed to orange runoff from mine tailings. Some might find the tailings runoff more appealing and aesthecially pleasing, but not me.

        “Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could just drive all of mankind out and return the world to the wildlife.”

        You said that, not me. Strictly speaking, no I don’t believe it would be a better place. Consciousness is in and of itself a good thing in my view, inherently good but with what I consider some nasty and unintended consequencies. Recently, a poster suggested having a world population of one half a billion human beings. In principal, I agree that human population needs to be addressed on a global level; one reason being that wildlife could use, IMO, more “elbow room”. I am not entirely in favor of the five hundred million number, it could be one billion, two, five or, at this point, seven.

        “Why don’t you lead the way?”

        This can be interpreted quite a few different ways. I’m not sure if you mean I should begin a citizen’s petition to close down that portion of U.S. 12 currently being discussed or whether its should I set a better personal example in my habits; regarding eating meat or consumming fossil fuels, for example. Or, haha, I get it… were you suggesting that I should commit hari-kari, the joke being that one less person consumes that much less resources? Being an honest thinker (aren’t we all just a bit vain?) I have thought about the implicatons invovled and in the end rejected the idea as completely and absolutely immoral.

  7. Robert R Avatar
    Robert R

    I really don’t want to be for these mega loads but if they have the required number of axles and the correct bridge length for support and if an EIS is done and they are made to have a reclamation bond why not. I understand weight limits and if there met what’s the problem. Truckers regularly hall daily loads in excess of 100,000 pounds or more.
    I realize some of these loads are over 600,000 and very high and wide.

    1. zach Avatar

      They don’t belong on every highway.

      Have you ever been on the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway that CodyCoyote was talking about above?
      In my humble opinion, you’d be nuts or deathly stupid to try and take a truck that size on that highway.

      If you jackknife or roll your rig, more than likely that’s going to be tax payer’s money that pays to get you out of your mess.

      Highway 12 in Northern Idaho is not meant to for that kind of capacity. There are parts of that route where I have scene trucks pulling huge campers have struggled to make it through.

      It would be a huge waste of tax payer and corporate money to pay for that kind of expansion there.

      1. Robert R Avatar
        Robert R

        Zach its not a huge load by any standard but when I move the crusher it’s a 130,000 pounds and we have went on roads far narrower than the scenic road. I’m sure the drivers are professionals and know the risks or they wouldn’t be driving.

        1. zach Avatar

          I believe the Forest Service know the risks and that’s why they’re not letting them do the driving.


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Ralph Maughan