The two compromise routes to run the Gateway West Transmission Line through the Morley Nelson-Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, long supported by most of the parties, finally has a path to approval.
A deal struck between Idaho Power and the Conservation Lands Foundation would use routes next to existing power lines that already cross the conservation area south of Kuna. Those routes have long had consensus among local officials, the utility, Idaho and conservation groups.
To make the deal work, the land under the power lines would be removed from the conservation area. In exchange, another 4,800 acres near Interstate 84 would be added to the national conservation area, and given enhanced restoration work.
Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson brokered the deal that will come in the form of legislation co-sponsored by the entire Idaho congressional delegation and is expected to be introduced Monday.
“I applaud the Conservation Lands Foundation and Idaho Power for their pragmatic approach to a complex issue which will result in both savings for Idaho ratepayers and conservation benefits to the Birds of Prey National Conservation Area,” said Simpson.
The Conservation Lands Foundation had first opposed the routes across the Birds of Prey area, fearing that approving infrastructure construction there would set a bad precedent for the protection of other lands within the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation Area system established in 2009.
Local BLM officials already had brought counties, conservationists, Idaho officials and others together behind the two routes, and the local BLM resource advisory committee made the two routes its preferred alternative.
But in the last days of Barack Obama’s presidency, the administration and the BLM instead identified as its preference and decision two routes south of the Birds of Prey that go through critical sage grouse habitat opposed by nearly everyone.
Idaho Power and the Conservation Lands Foundation already had been talking about this compromise.
Danielle Murray, senior director at the Conservation Lands Foundation, thanked Simpson, Idaho Power and the BLM.
“This legislation expands protections for raptors and eagles while allowing for the development of much-needed energy infrastructure,” Murray said. “We thank BLM for all their work to protect this region and to Rep. Mike Simpson and Idaho Power for their willingness to engage with stakeholders to develop a sensible solution to a complex problem.”
Idaho Power Senior Vice President of Public Affairs Jeff Malmen pointed to the previous work of Idaho, local officials, ranchers, environmental interests and project supporters for laying the groundwork.
“The folks from the Conservation Lands Foundation have also been great partners, and their work has been extremely valuable,” he said.
This is the last stretch of Gateway West, jointly proposed by Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power, that needs federal approval. The two utilities hope to construct and operate 1,000 miles of high-voltage transmission line across Wyoming and Idaho.
If built, the power line would create more than 1,200 jobs and entail a $3.5 billion in economic investment, Simpson said. It could deliver to Western energy markets up to 1,500 megawatts of transmission capacity in southern Wyoming and Southern Idaho — enough to power 975,000 homes.
Simpson said he appreciated BLM efforts. The agency “helped create this vision and will ultimately be tasked with the heavy lifting of implementation,” he said.
The bill must go through the House Natural Resources Committee, where Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador sits. He said he was looking forward to working with Simpson and Idaho’s two senators “to see this project to the finish line.”
The bill could be attached to the funding bill that must be done by April 28, or perhaps to a future infrastructure bill.
Gateway West also must still get approval from each Idaho county it crosses, a challenge because Power and Cassia counties have balked at the routes through their counties.
At the end of the process, the Idaho Public Utilities Commission also will have a decision-making role. The PUC will determine if ratepayers will shoulder the burden of paying for the transmission line construction. The Gateway project route could be approved, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent on studies and plans, and yet never get built.