Article updated at 6 p.m. EDT.
The Bureau of Land Management is set to approve routing the final two stages of a massive Wyoming-to-Idaho power line project almost completely outside the boundaries of a federal raptor sanctuary and across more private property and greater sage grouse habitat than critics say is necessary.
The preferred alternative in a final supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) for the nearly 1,000-mile-long Gateway West Transmission Line Project is almost certain to spark administrative challenges, and perhaps federal lawsuits, that could delay or doom the final two segments of the line.
Publication of the final SEIS in tomorrow's Federal Register will kick off a 30-day public protest period. BLM has targeted issuing a record of decision by year's end approving the final two segments. The Obama administration has made the line a top priority because it would 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.
The Idaho portion of the project has been a source of controversy for years.
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. They objected to the agency's proposal to avoid routing it through the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area (NCA).
Critics say skipping the area will sacrifice sage grouse habitat and private property, and ignores the recommendation of the agency's own advisory council.
But BLM's preferred alternative would route two separate 500-kilovolt lines along the southern boundary of the 485,000-acre Birds of Prey NCA.
The route would avoid much of the NCA, as well as the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument and development near the town of Hagerman, Idaho, according to the final SEIS. The route is "aligned to substantially avoid crossing the [NCA] by routing to the south," the document says.
In total, the final two segments of the power line in Idaho would cross only 17.6 miles of the NCA — the least of any of the seven alternatives BLM analyzed.
"When Congress established the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, the BLM was tasked with ensuring that those lands receive a heightened level of protection and care. That's a responsibility that we take seriously," BLM Idaho State Director Tim Murphy said in a statement.
BLM conservation policy
BLM officials say the preferred route conforms to a 2012 BLM 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."
The Gateway West project is the first major test for the policy and could set precedent for future projects in and around the National Conservation Lands system.
BLM and advocates worry that if the agency did route the line across large sections of the Birds of Prey NCA, it would pave the way for industrial-scale projects at other National Conservation Lands sites.
But Idaho officials have been clear that avoiding the Birds of Prey NCA at the expense of private property is unacceptable.
John Chatburn, administrator of the Idaho Office of Energy Resources in Boise, told E&E News in April, shortly after the draft SEIS had been released, that the state was "really disappointed" by BLM's insistence that the line should avoid the NCA (Greenwire, April 15).
Paul Kjellander, president of the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, and others argue the Birds of Prey NCA was designated because of its use by raptors, eagles and others — 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 nesting sites.
"Routing the line through Birds of Prey wouldn't compromise the area in any way, shape or form," Kjellander said in April. "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 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 landscapes.
The panel's recommendation to route the northwest corner and southern section of the line inside the NCA was evaluated in the draft SEIS but is not the preferred alternative.
A difficult task
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 the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument 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.
Still, 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.
Administrative protests to the final SEIS are limited to the five proposed land-use plan amendments, said Heather Feeney, a BLM spokeswoman in Boise.
Protests must be filed by Nov. 7.
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