The outgoing Obama administration announced today it formally approved routing the final two stages of a massive Wyoming-to-Idaho power line project mostly outside the boundaries of a federal raptor sanctuary and across more private property and greater sage grouse habitat than critics say is necessary.
The Bureau of Land Management’s record of decision (ROD) for the final two stages of the nearly 1,000-mile-long Gateway West Transmission Line Project would appear to move the project forward and end years of conflict between BLM and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R) and others over the route of the power line.
BLM issued an ROD in late 2013 approving the Gateway West route through southern Wyoming but deferred making a decision on the final two sections in Idaho after complaints from Otter, local leaders and private property owners. They objected to the agency’s proposal to avoid routing it on public lands through the BLM-managed Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area (NCA).
State officials today reiterated concerns that skipping the Birds of Prey NCA sacrifices greater sage grouse habitat and private property, and ignores the recommendation of BLM’s own advisory council.
The final two segments of the power line covering about 321 miles would route two separate 500-kilovolt lines along the southern boundary of the 485,000-acre Birds of Prey NCA, crossing a total of only 17.6 miles of the NCA — the least of any of the seven alternatives BLM analyzed in a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) finalized last fall (Greenwire, Oct. 6, 2016).
BLM says the sections of the line avoid priority sage grouse habitat, as well as the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument and development near the town of Hagerman, Idaho. The sections crossing the Birds of Prey NCA will require compensatory mitigation from project proponents Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power Co.
"Gateway West has been an administration priority project to transform our electric power grid and spur development of renewable energy," outgoing BLM Director Neil Kornze said in a statement issued today.
Kornze signed the ROD yesterday for the Idaho segments of the Gateway West line, which is expected to carry up to 1,500 megawatts of mostly wind-generated electricity in Wyoming and Idaho to power-hungry load centers from Utah to Washington state.
"Today’s decision authorizes the routes with the least impact on private property, farmland, historic trails and cultural resources, visual resources, wetlands, sage grouse habitat, and the Birds of Prey National Conservation Area," Kornze added.
The decision in the ROD takes effect immediately, though appeals can be filed with the Interior Board of Land Appeals in the next 30 days, said Heather Feeney, a BLM spokeswoman.
But the route finalized in the ROD could spark federal lawsuits, from the state of Idaho and others, that delay or doom the final two segments of the line.
Otter and other state officials remain upset at BLM’s resistance to running the line through the Birds of Prey NCA.
State officials say BLM’s decision sacrifices greater sage grouse habitat and private property to avoid crossing the sanctuary, which is home to the largest concentration of nesting raptors in North America. Congress in 1993 established the area for the "conservation, protection and enhancement of raptor populations and habitat."
BLM has cited a 2012 policy manual guiding management of sites within the National Conservation Lands system that prioritizes avoidance and discourages granting rights of way for utility corridors and transportation projects in these areas to the "greatest extent possible."
BLM and advocates worry that routing the line across large sections of the Birds of Prey NCA would set a precedent that could pave the way for industrial-scale projects at other National Conservation Lands sites.
But critics, including the state of Idaho, argue the Birds of Prey NCA was designated because of its use by raptors, eagles and other birds of prey — not because of the pristine nature of the landscape. They note that as much as two-thirds of the NCA has been degraded over the years by invasive plant species and rangeland wildfires.
They also note that the area already includes power lines, roads and a more-than-century-old hydroelectric power plant. And studies have shown that a power line built there in the 1980s has enhanced raptor habitat by providing raptors, golden eagles, hawks and other birds of prey with excellent nesting sites.
Otter filed a protest after the final SEIS in October, which was denied by Kornze.
Otter also filed a "governor’s consistency review" on Dec. 6, 2016, with BLM Idaho Director Tim Murphy, objecting to resource management plan amendments needed to route the line.
Murphy did not accept the state’s recommendations in the consistency review, and Otter filed an appeal with Kornze this week. Kornze affirmed Murphy’s findings and denied Otter’s appeal in a letter sent yesterday to Otter, Feeney said, and the ROD was issued today.
A spokesman for Otter could not be reached for comment by publication time.
But John Chatburn, administrator of the Idaho Office of Energy Resources in Boise, told E&E News today that BLM ignored the state’s many concerns about the route in an effort to avoid the Birds of Prey NCA.
Chatburn notes a June 2014 report by an eight-member subcommittee of the BLM Boise District’s resource advisory council that concluded routing the line outside the NCA would have more impacts on communities, natural resource values and private landowners.
The report recommended running the southernmost section of the line inside the NCA, following roads and an existing 138-kV line.
"Obviously, we are extremely disappointed that BLM ignored not only the state but NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and citizens and local elected officials and their own advisory council and everybody else in Idaho," Chatburn said.
He said Kornze’s decision on the final two segments "is a decision that was completely driven out of the director’s office in D.C. on purely ideological grounds. It has nothing to do with the birds or the environment or anything else. It was ideological."
The Gateway West project highlights the difficulty of guiding the line’s final two stages across a dense mixture of federal and private lands, military weapons testing grounds, archaeological and historical sites, and neighborhoods and towns whose residents are opposed to its effects on their views and property values.
The proposed routes BLM analyzed followed designated energy corridors where possible, skipping past environmentally sensitive areas and abruptly shifting in a zigzag pattern on private lands to avoid nearby homes. In other cases, proposed routes for the line passed near several military weapons testing ranges where the Air Force has recommended that the transmission towers "be equipped with special lights to prevent collisions during training exercises."
The project proponents have proposed to restore habitat and coat the steel-lattice towers, some as tall as 180 feet, with a "dull galvanized finish" that will help them blend into the landscape.
The proposed route in the final SEIS will require five amendments to three current BLM land-use plans, including the resource management plan for the Birds of Prey NCA, which BLM says could not be entirely avoided.