The Bureau of Land Management stuck with routes for the Gateway West Transmission Line through Kuna and Owyhee, Cassia and Power counties in the final environmental review it released Friday.
But the agency proposed deferring the final decision in those contentious areas, while moving forward with rights-of-way on uncontested routes through Wyoming. The agency will take comments on the final environmental impact statement - and the proposal to defer the Idaho decision - for 60 days.
The 1,100-mile, 500-kilovolt power lines with towers as tall as 180 feet would be built from Glenrock, Wyo., to Murphy by Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power. The lines were proposed to connect plants in Wyoming to markets in the West at a time when electricity demand was high and supplies were barely adequate.
Today, the region has a power surplus and Idaho Power doesn't have the project in its 20-year plan.
The White House has identified the Gateway project as critical and made completing it a priority. In 2012, the BLM recommended two routes across the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey area that had been negotiated by Idaho Power, Ada and Owyhee counties, and other state and local officials after recommended routes through Southwest Idaho near Kuna and Owyhee proved controversial.
But as the BLM was writing rules for managing National Landscape Conservation Areas, as required by the 2009 Omnibus Lands Act, federal officials realized they had to "enhance" the resource - raptors - that the Birds of Prey area was designated to protect.
BLM officials decided they did not have time to reopen negotiations. They reverted to the two routes through mostly private land in Kuna and Melba and mostly public land in Owyhee County. The change angered residents, as well as local and state officials, all over again.
But officials and Idaho Power representatives have continued to meet with BLM officials in Washington, seeking to find an acceptable route through the Birds of Prey area.
"If we defer the decisions, we anticipate meetings with the stakeholders and the proponents," said Walt George, the BLM's project manager. "They may provide the final resolution."
The other areas of conflict are in Power and Cassia counties. There, the recommended route goes through farmland to avoid public land that is considered core habitat for sage grouse, a species that could be listed as endangered as early as 2015.
Power and Cassia officials said the BLM used outdated information about sage grouse in making the case against the route local officials had proposed.
"It is truly disappointing that a carefully researched route, with input from local citizens, and a historic collaboration between adjoining counties, could be ignored in favor of the desire to purely avoid public land," said Doug Balfour, a Pocatello attorney who worked with the counties on the routes.
Part of the process for deciding on a delay will be determining whether there is hope for consensus, George said. Otherwise, the BLM might approve the disputed route in its final decision.
The agency has consensus on the routes through Wyoming to Downey, Idaho - the route Rocky Mountain Power plans to build between 2015 and 2018. The Idaho segments west of Downey are not scheduled for completion until at least 2018 to 2021.
When the project was first proposed, it was aimed at tying in Rocky Mountain's coal-generation plants with markets farther West. Idaho Power has since built its Langley Gulch natural gas plant near New Plymouth, as well as added hundreds of megawatts of wind energy. The changing energy climate might end up allowing more time for all parties to find a compromise on the two routes - there are two because officials want redundant transmission capacity through the region.
"Since the project was proposed in 2007," George said, "we've seen many changes not only in the environmental issues but in the companies' proposals."
Rocky Barker: 377-6484