Idaho Rivers United’s decision to sue the U.S. Forest Service to force it to used the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to stop megaloads along the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers has already cost them.
The Boise-based group, which just celebrated 20 years protecting Idaho’s rivers, suffered a setback in its efforts to expand the miles of rivers designed as a wild or scenic river. The lawsuit against its partner in the Clearwater Basin Collaborative angered other partners and it has stepped down temporarily from the widely represented group convened by Republican Sen. Mike Crapo to forge agreements on everything from logging to wilderness designations.
“I offered to step away from the group for six months or until the Forest Service lawsuit is resolved,” said Bill Sedivy, Idaho Rivers United executive director.
Sedivy had gone to the co-chairs of the Clearwater group seeking to put the megaload issue on the agenda. But Alex Irby, co-chair from Orofino, said the issue was too controversial for the group.
Sedivy’s group sent the Forest Service two letters and got no answer before it decided to go to court. Idaho Rivers says in the suit the agency violated the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act and other federal laws by allowing the Idaho Transportation Department to issue permits for hundreds shipments that temporary close the road through the Wild and Scenic corridor of the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers.
“It startled all of us,” said Irby, a retired timber mill executive who co-chairs the group with Dale Harris, a wilderness advocate from Montana.
A subcommittee of the Clearwater group had already approved proposing Wild and Scenic protection for several tributaries in the watershed. They had not yet gone to the full group for approval and realistically legislation generated from the group isn’t likely to go to Congress until 2012 at the earliest.
“At this point it’s going to make the discussion a little sticky about new Wild and Scenic rivers going forward,” Sedivy said.
He doesn’t apologize for filing the lawsuit. He believes the Forest Service has forsaken its duty to protect the river corridors that are among the most beautiful along a highway in the United States.
Instead of challenging ExxonMobil plans for 207 200-foot high and 24-foot wide shipments that will block the highway temporarily, the Forest Service cooperated with the state and authorized modifications to the right-of-way.
“We’re the river people and this is a special place," Sedivy said.
Crapo has developed a strong relationship with Idaho Rivers United and Sedivy. They were a partner in the Owyhee Initiative that resulted in a bill that protected wilderness, hundreds of miles of new Wild and Scenic river stretches and helped ranchers.
In 2003 when Idaho Rivers was joining the regional lawsuit against federal dams to protect endangered salmon, Crapo tried but failed to negotiate a deal between salmon advocates and Idaho water interests. But Crapo came back in 2009 and offered to host talks again with everything on the table including breaching dams, seeking a wider collaborative process.
He has become perhaps the strongest advocate in Congress for replacing the adversarial form of federal land management with a collaborative approach. The Clearwater Basin Collaborative serves as the best example.
So he was disappointed when he also learned of the lawsuit in news reports.
“It’s very hard to litigate at the same time you collaborate,” Crapo said.
Sedivy said he has since apologized to the Clearwater Collaborative for not giving telling them about the lawsuit before it was filed.
“If I had to do it all over again I would have,” he said.