Letters from the West

BLM efforts to get Gateway West power line routes right miss mark

The latest routes for the western side of Gateway West run two next to each other along the Owyhee Front mostly avoiding the Morley Nelson Birds of Prey National Conservation Area.
The latest routes for the western side of Gateway West run two next to each other along the Owyhee Front mostly avoiding the Morley Nelson Birds of Prey National Conservation Area.

At first read you have to give the Bureau of Land Management credit for choosing routes for the Gateway West high-power transmission line that avoid private land and minimize impacts to sage-grouse habitat and the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area.

The route chosen places the two lines next to each other and crosses the Birds of Prey area in just two short spots. Instead, it runs along the Owyhee Front on other federal land, including areas that are arguably far more scenic than much of the cheatgrass-covered, burned-over national conservation area that already has transmission lines running through it.

The line would pass two of the key tests the agency had to meet if the 500-kilovolt transmission line route is to pass legal muster. It followed a process for siting rights-of-way across National Landscape Conservation Areas, a new land designation approved by Congress in 2009, of which the Birds of Prey Area is one.

The new rules require that the BLM show that the conservation area and the resources it was set aside to protect — healthy raptor populations — would be protected and enhanced. New mitigation guidelines also require agencies to avoid, minimize and offset environmental impacts.

These rules were especially important to a national environmental group established to support the National Landscape Conservation Area system, the Conservation Lands Foundation in Durango, Colo. The Gateway West-Birds of Prey decision was important to them because it would set a precedent for how the “protect and enhance” language in the law would be addressed in similar areas like Staircase Escalante National Monument in Utah and the California desert.

The problem is that the Owyhee County Commission, likely the state of Idaho and probably the utilities don’t like the route, which is longer and runs through an area that has clear scenic and even wildlife values itself. Alternatives routes that cross the Birds of Prey Area, which had been chosen in a collaborative process going on for nearly a decade and more focused in the past eight months, were rejected.

These routes had the support of raptor biologists, the local Audubon chapter, acquiescence of local conservation groups and probably would protect and enhance the raptors better than the chosen route. That’s because the Birds of Prey Area’s sagebrush and grassland ecosystem is in serious need of restoration — and mitigation money from Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power — that it’s not likely to get with this route.

Transmission lines have long been a fact of life in the Birds of Prey Area. Morley Nelson himself developed with Idaho Power transmission-line towers that helped raptors.

You can’t please everyone. Unfortunately, the BLM’s chosen route really pleases only the Conservation Lands Foundation.

You can bet the state of Idaho is going to delay as long as possible the process for final approval, with the hope that a new administration, Republican or Democrat, will get BLM to go with the collaborative alternative instead of the preferred one.

If that doesn’t work, they’ll go to Congress, which might pass a legislative rider that forces the BLM to go with the collaborative choice. That would set a precedence that would be a bitter pill for the Conservation Lands Foundation to swallow.

Even if the BLM succeeds in finalizing this decision, Idaho law gives Owyhee County veto power over the line siting. Already, Power and Cassia counties have balked at the routes that run through their counties.

Finally, at the end of the process, the Idaho Public Utilities Commission will determine if ratepayers will shoulder the burden of paying for the transmission line construction. The Gateway project may be approved, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent on studies and plans, but never get built.

That would be unfortunate, since solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy could be carried on the line from Idaho to energy markets throughout the West. That would bring jobs, investment and taxes to Idaho as it helps combat human-caused climate change.

The project would link wind plants spread from Glenwood, Wyo., west 1,000 miles to Melba, where eventually the line is expected to link to customers all the way west to the Pacific. That’s why President Barack Obama appointed a Rapid Response Transmission Team in 2009 to help fast-track priority projects like Gateway. But 2009 was a long time ago.

The rejection of consensus routes that may actually be better for raptors undercuts the collaborative process that western leaders and federal agencies have embraced. We’re like to hear more about this in a week, when the Western Governor’s Association comes to Boise for a workshop of its National Forest and Rangeland Management Initiative.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker