America’s Most Endangered Rivers for 2014: Middle Fork Clearwater & Lochsa Rivers


Threat: Industrialization of a Wild and Scenic River corridor
At risk: Scenery, solitude, world-class recreational values

Clearwater River, ID | © AlbertaScrambler

Clearwater River, ID | © AlbertaScrambler

The Middle Fork Clearwater River and one of its main tributaries, the Lochsa River, were among America’s first rivers to be designated under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Home to the Nez Perce Tribe and rich in early American history, these rivers are cherished by anglers and paddlers for their thriving coldwater fisheries, thrilling whitewater, and spectacular scenery. In stark conflict with these values, the energy industry wants to use the rural highway paralleling these rivers to transport huge megaloads of industrial equipment bound for the Canadian tar sands. The U.S. Forest Service must ban the shipment of these megaloads from this corridor to protect the rivers’ unique Wild and Scenic character.

The Rivers

Flowing for roughly 100 miles through the Clearwater National Forest, the Middle Fork Clearwater and Lochsa rivers traverse the homeland of the Nez Perce people. In 1804, the Lewis and Clark Expedition crossed Lolo Pass and followed the Lochsa and Clearwater to the Columbia and on to the Pacific Ocean. Since time immemorial, the rivers provided sustenance and travel routes for the Nez Perce people. The rivers teem with wildlife and are home to several rare and threatened species, including Chinook and coho salmon, steelhead, bull trout, and westslope cutthroat trout.

In the early 1960s, the rivers became more accessible when U.S. Highway 12 was completed, and in 1968, Congress designated the Clearwater and its two main tributaries, the Lochsa and Selway rivers, as America’s first Wild and Scenic Rivers. In later years, Highway 12 was designated as a National Scenic Byway due to its circuitous route through a narrow river canyon of unparalleled beauty. Today, this river corridor supports a vibrant recreational economy while remaining an integral component of the Nez Perce Tribe’s way of life.

The Threat

Lochsa River, ID | © Borg Hendrickson

Industrialization is threatening the scenery, solitude, and world-class recreational values of the Clearwater and Lochsa Rivers | © Borg Hendrickson

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The development of the tar sands in northern Alberta, Canada, requires massive infrastructure over an extended period of time. In their quest to maximize profits, some of the world’s largest corporations are contracting the manufacture of mining and refinery equipment in Asia and along the West Coast of North America, then transporting these “megaloads” via barge up the Snake River to Lewiston, Idaho. From there, they want to truck the megaloads up Highway 12 through the Wild and Scenic River corridor then over Lolo Pass into Montana and ultimately to northern Alberta.

Massive in scale, these megaloads are hauled on truck beds and can be as large as 30 feet high, 30 feet wide, 350 feet long, and weigh nearly a million pounds. Traveling at a slow crawl, these megaloads take a minimum of four nights to traverse the Middle Fork Clearwater-Lochsa River corridor and often much longer due to weather and mechanical difficulties. During the day, these loads are parked in turnouts along the Wild and Scenic River, creating a visual blight in an otherwise pristine area and blocking access to river recreation. At night, the transport creates a massive rolling roadblock that interferes with normal highway traffic, presents numerous safety hazards, and degrades visitor experiences. Furthermore, if a megaload truck were to fall off the highway and into the river, it would be virtually impossible to remove due to its giant size and the narrow width of the highway.

Since 2010, a coalition of local citizens, conservation groups, and the Nez Perce Tribe have fought successfully to preserve the intrinsic values of the river corridor using a mix of advocacy, direct action, and litigation. To date, these efforts have blocked over 225 megaloads while less than 15 have traversed the river corridor. While generally successful in the short term, the overall threat has not diminished.

What Must Be Done

The U.S. Forest Service is the federal agency charged with protecting the Wild and Scenic values of the river corridor. Despite successful federal litigation that affirms the authority of the Forest Service to engage on this issue, the Clearwater National Forest has yet to take a leadership role and develop adequate rules to ban the shipment of megaloads along this route. The Forest Service needs to hear from concerned citizens across the country that our Wild and Scenic Rivers are a national treasure and deserve better than becoming an industrial shipping route. The Forest Service must take responsibility for management of this Wild and Scenic corridor, and ban the shipment of megaloads along Highway 12.