The Bureau of Land Management has identified a new preferred route for the 1,100-mile-long Gateway West Transmission Line Project that the agency says largely avoids wildlife habitat, national trails, and archaeologically and culturally significant sites.
The preferred alternative also tries to steer the massive Wyoming-to-Idaho high-tower transmission line to BLM-managed lands as much as possible to avoid potential conflicts in obtaining right-of-way easements across ranches and farmland and to reduce concerns about obstructed viewsheds from residents in nearby neighborhoods.
BLM is still studying a number of alternative routes for each of the 10 segments of the project, which would become the first major U.S. power line in decades. A final route will be identified in a final environmental impact statement (EIS) expected to be released by year's end, said Beverly Gorny a BLM spokeswoman in Cheyenne, Wyo.
A final EIS will start a public comment period before a final record of decision is released next year, she said.
"The preferred alternative will be in the final EIS, but certainly public comments and input can adjust that still," Gorny said. "The whole point in giving a preferred alternative is to point out what the science has identified to date."
The Gateway West project proposed by Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power would stretch from Glenrock, Wyo., to a substation 30 miles southwest of Boise, Idaho. If completed in 2018, the power line would carry up to 3,000 megawatts of what BLM says will be mostly wind-generated electricity to power-hungry load centers across the West.
The Obama administration last October named Gateway West one of seven pilot transmission line projects that it plans to accelerate through the federal permitting process in an effort to generate jobs and bolster renewable energy production (Greenwire, Oct. 5, 2011).
"Our goal is to have this be a publicly driven process," Gorny said. "If we missed something we need to know, and if we nailed it on the head we need to know."
The power line's route has been dogged by concerns from environmentalists, local government leaders and private landowners since the line was first proposed more than five years ago.
Gorny said the preferred route is based on recommended revisions to the original proposal made by the project proponents, as well as suggestions contained in the more than 2,600 public comments submitted to BLM after the draft EIS was released last year.
The public comments in fall 2011 were largely critical, raising significant concerns about everything from damage the line could cause to federally designated historic trails and raptor nests to the safety of Air Force flight training operations across southern Wyoming and Idaho (Greenwire, March 6).
The critical comments highlighted the immense challenge BLM faces in permitting the multistate high-tower transmission line across hundreds of miles of natural resources and human activities in both states.
One long-standing concern is the potential impact of the line on the greater sage grouse and its dwindling sagebrush steppe habitat.
Environmental activists who have reviewed BLM's preferred route say the revisions do little to alleviate that concern.
Duane Short, wild species program director for the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Laramie, Wyo., said the preferred route directly affects many grouse breeding areas, called leks, and like other proposed routes, it is likely to push the imperiled bird closer to an Endangered Species Act listing.
The Fish and Wildlife Service in March 2010 determined the bird warrants ESA protection, and the agency placed it on a list of "candidate species" deserving of projection. FWS is under a court-mandated deadline to make a final ESA determination on the grouse by 2015.
More than half the remaining sage grouse population in North America is in Wyoming.
"We have always held that Gateway West should take advantage of the plains to the east and south through Wyoming to avoid destroying greater sage grouse leks and habitat all across central and southern Wyoming, where the imperiled bird is most heavily concentrated," Short said.
BLM counters that in each of the four segments in Wyoming, the preferred route runs through an energy corridor originally developed by former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) that is designed to guide transmission lines and pipeline projects through miles of sensitive grouse habitat across southern Wyoming.
What's more, a habitat equivalency analysis BLM released this summer outlined specific mitigation measures that, if implemented, would ensure that the power line "is not likely to contribute to a trend toward federal listing or cause a loss of viability for the sage-grouse." The analysis was conducted by Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power in consultation with BLM and FWS (E&ENews PM, June 29).
But Short points to a roughly 65-mile-long section of the power line route running west of the Aeolus substation, which is northwest of Medicine Bow, Wyo. This section of the line, he said, follows the governor's energy corridor but would negatively affect more than 20 leks.
"The agency, to date, appears to be giving deference to the governor's energy corridor rather than the facts on the ground," he said. "The energy corridor is a paper tiger that misleads the public into believing sage grouse and their habitat will not be negatively impacted. Nothing could be further from the truth."
BLM needs to do more to protect the iconic bird, whose habitat has dwindled significantly the past 50 years due to wildfires and residential and energy development, said Mark Salvo, the director of WildEarth Guardians' Sagebrush Sea Campaign.
"Sage grouse are suffering death by a thousand cuts, but the Gateway West project is a larger gash than most," Salvo said. "Federal planners should require greater restrictions for this project; otherwise, they are rolling the dice on its potential impacts on the grouse."
Ranchland, national trails
Another potential holdup is access to private land. Less than half the 1,100-mile route is on federal land, including 300 miles in Wyoming and 200 miles in Idaho.
In the checkerboard pattern of public and private land ownership, particularly in Wyoming, it's impossible to route the line entirely on BLM or Forest Service land.
One reason that construction of the line is not expected to start until 2016 is that Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power must negotiate rights of way with landowners and must obtain a slew of state or county permits, said Gorny, the BLM spokeswoman.
In addition, most of the known cultural and historical resource impacts involve the line's path alongside and across federally designated National Historic Trails.
John Wessels, director of the National Park Service's Intermountain Region in Denver, expressed concerns to BLM last year that the line's southern route in Idaho would parallel or cross 30 miles of National Historic Trails, including the California Trail and the Mormon Battalion Trail.
Gorny said the agency's preferred route avoids trails. For example, Section 7 of the line in southern Idaho avoids the National Historic Trails site "The Parting of the Ways," according to a map of the proposed route.
"We're trying to be sensitive and avoid key areas of private land, such as cities or large greenfield areas," she said. "But when looking at a transmission line that's nearly 1,100 miles, some of that can't be avoided."
Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.