In the first major decision to follow new guidance on avoiding development in conservation areas, the Bureau of Land Management has proposed routing the final two stages of a Wyoming-to-Idaho power line outside of a federal raptor sanctuary.
Doing so would protect key habitat and wildlife, the agency said.
But Idaho leaders and other critics say BLM's proposal sacrifices greater sage grouse habitat and private property to avoid crossing the sanctuary -- and ignores the recommendation of the agency's own advisory council.
BLM's plan could delay the line for years or even doom the final two segments of the nearly-1,000-mile-long Gateway West Transmission Line Project, they warn.
The disagreement poses the initial major test for the new policy and could set precedent for future projects.
"This is one of the first projects to be examined since the new guidance, and it is being viewed as the first one out of the box to see how the policy guidance can be applied," said Heather Feeney, a BLM spokeswoman in Boise, Idaho.
At issue is BLM's resistance to routing segments of the project through the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area (NCA) in southwest Idaho.
Home to the largest concentration of nesting raptors in North America, the area was established by Congress in 1993 for the "conservation, protection and enhancement of raptor populations and habitat."
The 2012 BLM policy manual guiding management of sites within the National Conservation Lands system prioritizes avoidance and discourages granting rights of way for utility corridors and transportation projects in these areas to the "greatest extent possible."
Citing it, the agency has proposed to wrap two separate 500-kilovolt lines hundreds of miles along the northern and southern borders of the 485,000-acre Birds of Prey NCA. BLM outlined the two "co-preferred" alternative routes last month in a voluminous draft supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS).
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.
"Even above the policy, it's a national conservation area that was set aside by Congress to preserve the environmental and cultural resources and values, and those are BLM's instructions on how to manage the area," said Danielle Murray, policy director for the Conservation Lands Foundation, which advocates for the National Conservation Lands system. "This is a massive-scale development. It's nothing we can wrap our heads around as possibly co-existing with conservation."
But critics 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.
"Routing the line through Birds of Prey wouldn't compromise the area in any way, shape or form," said Paul Kjellander, president of the Idaho Public Utilities Commission. "All this pushback we're getting on what would be a more direct route for the transmission line [through Birds of Prey] is something that is sort of painful to watch. It's very frustrating."
In proposing to avoid most of the Birds of Prey NCA, the agency is bypassing the recommendations of a BLM-appointed resource advisory council subcommittee composed of scientists, elected leaders and policymakers who spent nearly eight months working with the project proponents -- Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power Co. -- on suitable alternative routes with the least impacts to private property, sage grouse habitat, cultural resources and viewsheds.
The panel's recommendation to route the northwest corner and southern section of the line inside the Birds of Prey NCA was evaluated in the draft SEIS and is still open for consideration, Feeney said.
But it's not one of the co-preferred choices, upsetting state leaders who warn BLM's proposed routes could spark lawsuits and protests that delay the project for years or even kill its final two segments.
That would be devastating for a project the Obama administration has made a top priority, in large part because it would carry up to 1,500 megawatts of what BLM says will be mostly wind-generated electricity in Wyoming and Idaho to power-hungry load centers from Utah to Washington state.
"I think it's safe to say that the state of Idaho is disappointed that the Bureau of Land Management didn't take the advice of their own resource advisory council on the placement of Segments 8 and 9," said John Chatburn, administrator of the Idaho Office of Energy Resources in Boise. "We are disappointed, and I mean really disappointed."
A difficult task
BLM issued a record of decision in late 2013 approving the Gateway West route through southern Wyoming, but deferred making a decision on the final two sections after complaints from Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter (R), local leaders and private property owners angered over the agency's proposal to avoid routing it through the Birds of Prey NCA.
Even if BLM issues a record of decision approving the last two segments, local counties in Idaho must still grant conditional-use permits to allow the companies to build the lines within their jurisdiction; BLM can only approve the segments on federal lands.
That's not likely to happen, according to state leaders and other observers following the Gateway West project.
It's not clear whether the county governments, which have raised concerns in the past about routes avoiding the NCA, can block construction of the line.
Chatburn said that if one or more of the counties along the routes decline to issue conditional-use permits, the project proponents could seek state approval through the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.
But Chatburn said that has not been done before. And because routing the line to avoid the Birds of Prey NCA would add miles to the route -- and thus more construction costs that would be passed on to ratepayers -- it might be hard to win the support of the commission.
Still, a close review of BLM's draft SEIS highlights the enormous 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 it impacting their views and property values.
The proposed routes follow designated energy corridors where possible, skipping past the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument and shifting abruptly in a zigzag pattern on private lands to avoid nearby homes. In other cases, the line comes 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.
Still, each of the proposed routes will require amending as many as six federal land-use plans to allow the line to pass through wilderness study areas, portions of a designated wild and scenic river, and the Birds of Prey NCA, which BLM says could not be avoided entirely.
Feeney, the BLM spokeswoman, said the agency very much needs to gather public feedback on the co-preferred routes in the draft SEIS, which is open for public comment through June 9. BLM has scheduled a series of public meetings in Idaho next week to discuss it.
All seven alternatives analyzed in the document "are still on the table," including Alternative 1, which would run the line through the northwest corner and inside the southern boundary of the Birds of Prey NCA for a total of about 83 miles.
Of the co-preferred choices, Alternative 2 would cross the NCA for a total of 31 miles; Alternative 5 is designed to avoid the NCA, crossing only 8.7 miles.
Feeney said BLM "didn't feel comfortable" listing Alternative 1 as a preferred alternative because the mitigation plan submitted by Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power did not include enough proposals to enhance the habitat within the NCA.
"There's a lot of restoration that would need to be done on the National Conservation Area" before the line could be routed through it, Feeney said.
The "mitigation and enhancement portfolio" proposed significant mitigation measures, such as purchasing private inholdings within the Birds of Prey NCA and deeding them to the agency.
But the plan "is not detailed enough" when it comes to proposals for "enhancement" to improve environmental conditions at Birds of Prey, such as removing invasive plants like cheatgrass and restoring wildfire-scarred landscapes, Feeney said.
"One way of looking at this particular proposal for this particular project is that having the Gateway West line go through the Birds of Prey would undoubtedly have impacts," she said. "But that is also an opportunity for some very creative mitigation and enhancement."
Margaret Oler, a spokeswoman for Rocky Mountain Power, said the companies are still reviewing the massive draft SEIS and will comment publicly on it when they submit formal comments to BLM.
Protecting sage grouse
Whatever route is chosen, there's no escaping impacts to the greater sage grouse, which last year narrowly avoided being listed by the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act.
But the two co-preferred routes would have greater impacts on sage grouse, according to the draft SEIS and wildlife experts, cutting through or near important grouse habitat, including dozens of breeding grounds called leks.
Sage grouse are known to avoid tall structures, and the transmission lines -- which will average 150 feet tall -- are expected to attract predators such as ravens, which feed on sage grouse eggs and young chicks.
"These are structures that both drive away sage grouse and provide habitat for sage grouse predators," said Kate Zimmerman, public lands policy director for the National Wildlife Federation. "There will be trade-offs."
The project is poised to become the first test of the Obama administration's decision to exempt Gateway West and three other high-priority power-line projects from the mandates of federal grouse conservation plans finalized last fall that BLM is working to implement. These include sage grouse screening criteria, as well as "buffers, tall structure requirements, and disturbance cap requirements," according to the grouse conservation plan covering Idaho and southwest Montana.
The decision to exempt the projects is already one of the issues cited in a federal lawsuit filed in February by a coalition of environmental groups challenging the adequacy of the plans to protect the grouse (Greenwire, Feb. 25).
The Gateway West line is not exempt from mitigation requirements, however, including ensuring a "net benefit" to grouse.
The draft SEIS notes that while the companies' mitigation plan "contains measures that would benefit wildlife and fish species in general ... it does not contain any measures or programs that are specifically targeted at [sensitive] wildlife or fish species."
Depending on which route is chosen, the power line would cross nearly 200 miles of sage grouse habitat in southern Idaho, impacting nearly 2,000 acres of habitat.
Even the route through the Birds of Prey NCA would cross about 100 miles of grouse habitat, though most of that is general habitat that's not as important as priority habitat. And there's virtually no active grouse habitat inside the NCA.
Both co-preferred routes outside the NCA avoid grouse habitat identified in the federal sage grouse conservation plans approved last fall as priority habitat management areas (PHMAs), and sagebrush focal areas that are critical to the bird's survival. But the routes would cross important habitat management areas (IHMAs), which are BLM lands in Idaho that are supposed to provide buffers or connections between patches of PHMAs.
Alternative 2, the first of the two co-preferred routes, has a combined length of 292 miles, which is the shortest among the seven alternatives analyzed in the document. It would cross 519 acres of IHMAs and pass within 4 miles of 27 leks.
Alternative 5 is the longer of the two co-preferred alternatives, covering about 321 miles. But its southern segment "is aligned to substantially avoid crossing the [NCA] by routing to the south ... and to minimize direct and indirect impacts to priority greater sage-grouse habitat."
Still, it would cut through 1,024 acres of IHMAs, and within 4 miles of 32 leks.
By contrast, Alternative 1, containing route segments proposed by Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power, would cut through mostly general grouse habitat that's not believed to be used by the birds.
The exception: It would pass through about 374 acres of IHMAs, according to the draft SEIS.
Finding common ground
The members of a panel of experts appointed by former BLM Boise District Manager Jim Fincher continue to endorse routing the two segments of the line through the Birds of Prey NCA.
The eight-member subcommittee of the Boise District's resource advisory council was tasked with finding suitable routes just weeks after BLM in 2013 approved all but the final two Gateway West sections.
For nearly eight months, the broad group of stakeholders pored over maps, made field trips and received technical assistance from Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power.
In June 2014, the subcommittee submitted to BLM its detailed report recommending running the southernmost section of the line inside the NCA, following roads and an existing 138 kV line.
"The majority of the subcommittee members concluded that routes that sought to circumvent the [NCA] had more impacts on communities, resources and values, and private landowners than routes that traversed the [NCA]," the report says.
The full resource advisory council, whose members are appointed by the Interior secretary, endorsed the subcommittee's recommendation.
Thus, when BLM last month proposed the two alternatives avoiding the NCA, "it was kind of a slap in the face after many of us devoted many, many hours to working on this," said Karen Steenhof, a former U.S. Geological Survey wildlife biologist who co-chaired the subcommittee with Neil Rimbey, a range economist at the University of Idaho.
"Karen and I are extremely disappointed with the way this went," Rimbey added. "I will think many times before I agree to do another thing for BLM if this is their track record."
Steenhof, while working at USGS and BLM in the early 1990s, led research published in peer-reviewed journals detailing how properly sited transmission lines, like the route the subcommittee was proposing, actually benefit raptors by providing nesting sites.
Though BLM maps in the draft SEIS show the line crossing some grouse habitat in the NCA, "I don't think a sage grouse has been seen in those areas since the beginning of the 20th century," said Steenhof, appointed to the committee by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
"There would be no impact on sage grouse," she said. "And very little impact on private land."
But while seven of the eight subcommittee members supported the routes through the NCA, Murray, the Conservation Lands Foundation policy director, did not.
She wrote in a six-paragraph "minority conclusion" at the end of the report that the "majority recommendation is inconsistent with legal requirements for protecting" the NCA, as well as BLM policy on managing the National Conservation Lands system.
"To ensure its long-term protection, the BLM can only approve actions that will 'protect, maintain and enhance' raptor populations, habitat and other purposes for which the NCA was established. Thus, the BLM shall not grant a right of way inside the NCA unless they can demonstrate that the power line enhances cultural and educational resources," Murray wrote.
That opinion has not changed, Murray said in a recent interview.
"We would really challenge BLM to show how a transmission line increases the values of environmental and cultural resources," she said.
Steenhof said the committee is working on a formal comment letter to BLM expressing disappointment with the draft SEIS.
So is the state, said Chatburn, the Idaho Office of Energy Resources administrator.
"Regardless of how disappointed we are, the state of Idaho is going to continue to participate in the process and attempt to work constructively with Idaho BLM to come to a resolution on the issues so that we can get the best outcome for the state in the process," Chatburn said.
In the end, the two sides may just have to agree to disagree, Feeney said.
"This is a situation where, at the end of all of this process, I think the best we can look for is something we all can live with," Feeney said. "I don't think anybody is going to love the outcome."
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