State ready to issue permit; U.S. Forest Service applies the brakes, says study and tribal advice needed
At the request of the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD), the U.S. Forest Service is revising one of its interim criteria designed to define and govern the transport of megaloads through national forest land.
But the change won’t make it any easier for the massively oversized shipments to win approval for travel along U.S. Highway 12 as it passes through the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest and its Wild and Scenic River corridors.
The Forest Service is also asking to review megaload applications before permits are awarded by the state and is taking issue with the state’s insistence that it lacks authority to deny the permits.
In February, federal Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled the Forest Service has authority to review megaload shipments that cross national forest land and pass through the Lochsa and Middle Fork of the Clearwater Wild and Scenic River corridor.
Following the ruling, Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell initially defined megaloads as those that require traffic to be stopped, those that take more than 12 hours to pass through the forest, or those that require the highway or adjacent vegetation to be modified to facilitate passage. He told state transportation officials that loads meeting any of the criteria wouldn’t be approved by the agency until it developed a formal megaload review process and consulted with the Nez Perce Tribe. That process is expected to take some time, and Brazell said it should be preceded by a study that outlines the cultural and recreational values of the area.
But shipping company Omega Morgan wants to move as many as ten megaloads from the Port of Wilma to oil fields in Alberta, Canada, this year via the highway. It pressed the issue last week when it barged two evaporators to the port, where they are awaiting permits from the transportation department.
In a Wednesday letter, transportation department Chief Deputy L. Scott Stokes asked Brazell to reconsider the first criterion, saying it is routine for traffic on Idaho highways to be stopped for a variety of reasons.
In a response letter sent Friday, the forest supervisor said the criterion was developed to help define what qualifies as a megaload (see USFS Brazell to ITD Stokes Letter 7-26-13).
“The effect on traffic was used as a proxy for size and was intended to address the physical presence of an oversized load in the corridor,” he wrote.
Brazell then proposed replacing the traffic-stoppage criterion with one used by the department to determine which oversized loads traveling U.S. Highway 12 require traffic control plans.
In general, the state requires companies transporting loads more than 20 feet wide or 150 feet long to submit traffic control plans. But on U.S. Highway 12, which is narrow and twists along the Lochsa and Middle Fork of the Clearwater rivers for 100 miles, the state requires the plans on loads more than 16 feet wide.
“To be in sync with criteria District 2 already uses to trigger additional internal review, I propose that interim criteria number 1 be replaced to adopt your standard that loads greater than 16 feet wide or 150 feet long trigger additional review by the Forest Service,” according to the letter.
He went on to say that the two evaporators sitting at the Port of Wilma are more than 16 feet wide and would require two nights to travel across the forest.
“I would like to reiterate that the Forest Service does not support ITD permitting oversized loads meeting the interim criteria until the impacts of that use on the corridor values is better understood,” he wrote.
Brazell said formal government-to-government consultations between his agency and the Nez Perce Tribe about the interim criteria, a Wild and Scenic River corridor study, and the ultimate development of a megaload process would begin August 20.
“These are challenging discussions that will take time and we have no timeline for completing a corridor study but are seeking funding opportunities and evaluating internal capacity to complete such a study,” he wrote.
The state has said it may issue Omega Morgan a permit, while telling the company it also needs to work with the Forest Service to gain approval to use the highway. Brazell said the state should seek Forest Service review prior to issuing permits.
“You are aware the Forest Service has no mechanism to issue a permit for such uses, and the concept is disingenuous to the federal court ruling putting the Forest Service in a review role, not a permitting rule,” he wrote.
Finally, Brazell wrote that his agency believes the state does have authority to deny transport permits to megaload shippers. The transportation department has said it must approve permits that meet its standards for over-legal shipments.
“Idaho Code 49-1004 gives the state the discretion to issue permits but does not mandate permits to be issued,” he wrote.
(By Eric Barker, The Lewiston Tribune)