Heroes and Helping Hands

22nd of Jun 2023

Former Advocates for the West board Chair Lin Laughy delivered the speech below at our 20th anniversary celebration in Boise, ID on June 14, 2023. Lin graciously provided a manuscript of his speech to present as a blog post. Thank you, Lin!

Let me tell you a story.

Joseph Campbell studied myths from around the world. In his classic work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell observed that all cultures have myths, including many myths about big floods. Think of Lake Missoula carving out the Columbia, or Lake Bonneville and Hells Canyon. Another frequent theme Campbell noted is going into the belly of the beast. Ah, here we have Jonah and the whale, or the Nez Perce creation story at the Heart of the Monster near Kamiah. Campbell also found that virgin births weren’t uncommon. But one myth, and only one,  appeared in every culture Campbell studied. He called it the Hero’s Journey. It goes like this:

The story begins with a Call to go on an important mission, perhaps to capture the moon and put it in a box and bring it home so people would have light at night. Sometimes there’s a first refusal of the call, even a second refusal, but sooner or later the hero steps forth in what Campbell refers to as the Acceptance. The journey then begins with Crossing the Threshold, soon after which the hero faces Trials and Tribulations. And every time the dragon is about to slay the hero, a magic sword appears, the dragon is dispatched, and the hero continues the mission. Campbell calls this stage Helping Hands. Next is the Achievement—you capture the moon and put it in a box. Then comes Return to your People, and finally, the Gift.

In April, 2010, a group of 13 friends and neighbors living along Highway 12 in North Central Idaho met to discuss what, for us, was unbelievable. Imperial Oil, a subsidiary of Exxon-Mobil, intended to transport giant mining equipment, manufactured in Asia and headed to the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, through the Clearwater-Lochsa Wild and Scenic River corridor. The loads stood 29 feet high, were two-thirds the length of a football field, were up to five feet wider than the fog lines at the edges of Highway 12, and weighed 660,000 lbs. Imperial planned to transport 204 such loads; another tar sands operator wanted to transport 44 loads, ConocoPhillips 4 loads. Even Petro China was getting in line.

Imperial Oil had a written red-carpet welcome from Governor Otter. The Idaho Department of Transportation was ready to issue oversize load permits. The 20-vehicle convoy required for each load would be led by the Idaho State Police in full uniform driving official state police cruisers.

Truly unbelievable.

Naïve enough to think we could take on what was then the largest and perhaps most powerful international corporation in the world, our team of 13 started to organize. First up was active participation in a community gathering in Kooskia arranged by the Idaho Department of Transportation that included 14 employees of Imperial Oil, their armed guards, members of the Idaho State Police, and a young attorney from Advocates for the West, whoever they were. After two raucous hours the oil company execs beat a hasty retreat out of town. A few days later my phone rang, and Natalie Havlina, that young attorney from Advocates for the West, immediately asked, “How would you like to sue the Idaho Department of Transportation?” I replied that such a decision would require careful consideration, and after less than 10 seconds I said “YES, YES, Yes.” We had clearly crossed the threshold.

As predicted by Campbell, trials and tribulations soon followed—in some cases, even courtroom trials. And what would Joseph Campbell say would happen next? Helping hands. Friends of the Clearwater and Idaho Rivers United had joined our team from the start. Regional and national conservation organizations soon joined the cause.

Thanks to the skill and commitment of my wife and partner, Borg Hendrickson, the story of the rural people of Highway 12 Fighting Goliath began appearing in local newspapers, regional papers, the national press. We drove journalists from the Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, the New York Times over the proposed Highway 12 haul route, resulting in major stories in these newspapers. In total, the Fighting Goliath story appeared in more than 100 newspapers across the country. We lost track of how many radio talk shows and news interviews we did.

Many helping hands appeared from unknown sources across the Pacific Northwest and Canada. Let me share three examples:

One late afternoon we received an email from someone in Edmonton, Alberta.  “You need to go to television station CRFN in Edmonton right now.”  We did so, and airing was a news story with photos of a giant piece of mining equipment tipped over in the middle of a broad highway, flat ground on either side.

Another time we received a call from a stranger in the state of Washington who advised us he had just seen a barge on the Columbia with a giant piece of equipment on board. I asked him how far the barge was from the mouth of the Snake, and he replied “about an hour.” Would there be any possibility he could follow the barge and see whether it turned up the Snake or went to the Port of Pasco? Sure, he replied. I’ll call you in an hour. And he did, with a simple message—Snake.

Borg and I had developed a relationship with another helping hand, a crew foreman for one of the oil companies in Fort McMurray who on occasion would share valuable information. One day we received a package from him and inside found a copy of the book Fighting Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. I noticed a slight separation between some of the pages. I turned to the first one, and there lay a one-hundred dollar bill. The next slight separation, another hundred dollar bill. I repeated this same exercise a total of 14 times. We happily sent the money to Friends of the Clearwater, Idaho Rivers United and our new super helping hand, Advocates for the West.

August 8, 2013, saw the grandest of all displays of helping hands in the megaload journey. That evening the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee held a 9:30 p.m. press conference at the reservation line 11 miles east of Lewiston. Each council member spoke with unrehearsed eloquence. At 10:30 an approaching megaload loomed in the moonlight, the Idaho Police turned on their high beams and sirens, and 250 pairs of helping hands shut down the highway.

Throughout what became a 5-years-long challenge, Advocates for the West never wavered, creatively weaving together litigation, mediation and magic. Imperial Oil transported a single load into Montana, where it sat for 13 months under 24-hour guard until it was dismantled for scrap. Advocates for the West and its helping hands provided the precious gift of a megaload-free Clearwater-Lochsa Wild and Scenic River corridor.

This year we celebrate not only Advocates’ 20 years of existence, but 20 years of amazing legal victories providing gifts to many special places across the west and to their inhabitants large and small.  Advocates for the West, you are our heroes, and we will lend our helping hands for your critically important missions.

And let’s remember: heroes can become helping hands, and helping hands can become heroes.

A closing thought from Joseph Campbell: “We must let go of the life we have planned, so we can accept the one that is waiting for us.”

-Lin Laughy