The U.S. government didn't have its finest hour in a Boise courtroom late Wednesday afternoon.
"You saw what happened," Assistant U.S. Attorney Joanne Rodriguez told Boise Weekly. "The judge wasn't buying my argument."
In a rare moment of post-argument candor, Rodriguez told BW, "If I had to predict, the judge looks like he might rule for the other side."
Moments before, Rodriguez stood before U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill to argue on a much-anticipated case of the Idaho Rivers United versus the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Federal Highway Administration. A packed courtroom at Boise's Federal Courthouse listened to 60 minutes of arguments surrounding something that BW readers know all too well: mega-loads.
"There's a reason they're called mega-loads, your honor," said Laird Lucas, attorney and executive director of Advocates for the West, arguing for Idaho Rivers United. "Even the U.S. Forest Service has called mega-loads 'overtly, industrious elements' being introduced to a wild and scenic river location."
In the current issue of BW, we outline the case before Winmill (BW, News, "The Mega-Myth About Mega-Loads," Feb. 6, 2012) and the Idaho Rivers United argument that the Forest Service must do its job as a steward of the U.S. Highway 12 corridor, which curls along the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers, protected by the U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
But when the Forest Service granted a so-called "easement" to the Idaho Transportation Department to use the corridor, mega-load opponents said that the U.S. government didn't also give up its authority to protect the land and rivers.
"Just so I understand," said Winmill to Lucas. "You're not asking me to rule on whether the mega-loads are appropriate. You're asking if the Forest Service has the jurisdiction and authority."
"That's exactly right, your honor," said Lucas.
In a fast-paced 30-minute presentation, Lucas introduced a flurry of exhibits and documents that showed the original U.S. Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the easement granted to the Idaho Transportation Department and photographs of trees along U.S. Highway 12 that have had half of their branches completely stripped to the tree trunk in order to accommodate the giant rigs that roll across the highway.
Lucas also unveiled a photograph that BW readers have already seen: a mega-load, sitting on U.S. Highway 12 as recently as last week.
"Your honor, I object," said Rodriguez. "That photograph is not on the record."
"Are you saying that the mega-loads have stopped on U.S. Highway 12?" Winmill asked Rodriguez. "Are you disputing that?"
"I don't know," Rodriguez answered. "I've never heard of this or seen this picture before."
When BW asked Rodriguez after the court hearing if she indeed had not heard of the multiple mega-loads that have been granted permits from the Idaho Transportation Department, she said, "no."
"But that's not my argument," she said. "It's all about the rules of evidence."
When Lucas showed the photo to Winmill, revealing a rocket ship-sized rig on its way to the Tar Sands Oil Project in Alberta, Canada, he called the picture "icing on the cake."
"We need them to get their act together," said Lucas.
In the afternoon's biggest surprise, Winmill indicated that he would hand down a ruling within a matter of days.
"We'll issue a decision, if possible, very quickly," said Winmill.
If indeed Winmill rules that the U.S. Forest Service has the authority to block mega-loads in order to protect the U.S. 12 corridor, mega-load opponents are poised to launch a series of new legal maneuvers to stop the controversial shipments.