BOULDER, Mont. – Marie Garrison says her family has done its part to support electricity development in rural Montana.
Garrison, a mother of two who grazes about 350 pair of cattle on her ranch south of Butte, points to two transmission lines behind her home that carry electricity along Interstate 15 to residents in nearby Dillon, Mont.
A local utility paid her husband’s grandfather $1 in the 1950s for the right to build the lines on his property, she said. The 60-foot-tall wooden poles make a subtle mark on the rolling prairie below Fleecer Mountain.
Now, a South Dakota-based power company – promising new jobs, state and county revenues and economic development – has proposed building a much taller line along I-15 that could run through a swath of Garrison’s property.
NorthWestern Energy’s Mountain States Transmission Intertie would carry 1,500 megawatts, much of it renewable wind power, from central Montana to Midpoint, Idaho.
But to do it, the 500-kilovolt line, known as MSTI, must cross a 430-mile mishmash of lands owned by residents, ranchers, farmers, counties, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Energy Department.
The proposal has stirred a fierce debate in the state over who should bear the brunt of new transmission lines. MSTI would be strung from 125-foot-tall steel lattice towers spaced about six per mile, an imposing mark on an otherwise rugged landscape and, for some, an impediment to agricultural work.
While most of the private lands to be crossed by the line are already disturbed by existing transmission and major highways, many landowners and county officials argue more of the line belongs on federal lands, despite potential harm to wildlife.
The rub, according to critics, is that MSTI won’t supply Montanans but will instead ship power to out-of-state consumers on the West Coast or in the desert Southwest.
“That’s the difference between these poles and MSTI,” Garrison said as the sun dipped behind the mountains and the sound of mooing cows echoed through the foothills. “The MSTI line is commercial. NorthWestern is like a trucking outfit. To take our land to do their business is totally wrong.”
Garrison and others in Montana are fighting to reroute the project onto public lands, where the burden could be borne by species including sage grouse and elk rather than landowners.
Groups such as Move MSTI, Save Scenic Jefferson Valley and Keep it Rural say they oppose the “industrialization” of the bucolic mountain valleys of central and southwestern Montana.
The group Real Montanas for Fair Land Use, backed by actor and local rancher Bill Pullman, last month launched a campaign to overturn Montana’s recently passed eminent domain law, which strengthened NorthWestern’s power to condemn private lands if it obtains a state siting permit.
Proponents must collect 24,000 signatures by the end of next month to get a referendum on the November 2012 ballot.
In addition, Jefferson County in May 2010 filed a lawsuit against the state claiming the Department of Environmental Quality had violated Montana law by failing to adequately consult with the county on its evaluation of a preferred route for the line.
Montana’s Supreme Court heard arguments in the case earlier this month and is expected to issue a decision by the end of the year. Until then, the state has little way of knowing if it has adequately consulted the county.
As a result, one of Montana’s most promising economic development projects remains in legal and political limbo.
Delays to wind development
While state and federal agencies had originally planned to release a preferred route in fall 2009, they now plan to release a draft environmental impact statement in spring 2012. The draft may not include a preferred route, BLM said.
The delays to MSTI and other transmission projects could strand up to 50 proposed wind farm projects that are in various stages of planning and development in Montana, according to a state Department of Labor report (pdf) released in July 2010.
While the future of wind development faces myriad other hurdles – namely expiring production tax credits and Treasury Department grants and Congress’ inability to set a price on carbon dioxide pollution – the lack of transmission capacity threatens to send potential developers in Montana to other states, advocates warn.
“It certainly makes it difficult for the [wind developer], because they need to time the construction and delivery of their projects around when they’re actually going to have the transmission line in place,” said Claudia Rapkoch, a spokeswoman for NorthWestern. “Certainly if a developer finds that they can’t get a line out of Montana, they’re going to look elsewhere.”
Other transmission developers have suffered similar setbacks in the state.
The Montana-Alberta Tie Line in northern Montana would ship more than 500 megawatts of wind power north to Canada and south to Great Falls but has been mired in legal battles with dozens of landowners who are fighting plans to condemn their land. Construction on the contested lands is stalled until the legal battles are resolved (Greenwire, Aug. 15).
Renewable energy advocates say the projects are critical to helping Montana harness a wind resource considered among the top in the nation. An industry study this year found that Montana wind blows the strongest during the day when winds in the Pacific Northwest fall still, a welcome balance for grid operators.
“We can firm Montana wind on West Coast wind like a hand in the glove,” said Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) in an interview. “But we need transmission capacity.”
Schweitzer said he understands concerns that the line won’t supply Montanans, but he emphasized that the state’s economy depends on exports. In 2007 it exported more than a third of the electricity it produced, according to the state Department of Labor.
“Montana has been producing substantially more electricity than we consume for decades,” Schweitzer said. “We are an electricity-producing state. Historically it has been hydro and coal, but increasingly it’s wind.”
Rapkoch, the spokeswoman for NorthWestern, said the line could catalyze new wind, natural gas and biomass development while generating up to $37 million in new property taxes annually. No coal plants are requesting to tie into the NorthWestern grid, she said.
NorthWestern said it is seeking interested power companies to supply the line – and help defray its $1 billion price tag – until Montana and BLM issue a draft environmental impact statement. The company is expecting final approval sometime in early 2013, with construction beginning later that year.
Dispute over northern leg
The MSTI line’s northernmost segment has become a flash point in the siting debate, spawning the Jefferson County lawsuit and stirring anger from landowners in adjacent Silver Bow County.
A preliminary report from Montana DEQ proposed routing the line south from Townsend through mostly undeveloped range and farmlands before turning west to follow a transmission corridor along Interstate 90 toward Butte.
County leaders say an alternate route following an existing Bonneville Power Administration line through the Helena and Beaverhead-Deerlodge national forests would do less harm to landowners.
But that route is opposed by at least two environmental groups that argue it would disrupt a prized elk herd and skirt a remote wilderness study area.
“We’re trying to do our best not to move the problem to the next county,” said Dan Foley, a commissioner in Butte-Silver Bow, a consolidated city and county government serving the city of Butte and Silver Bow County. “There’s a need for alternative energy and there’s a need to get that to market, but you also have to respect private property rights.”
His remarks drew applause from dozens of residents at a commission meeting last month at the historic Butte courthouse, where officials were briefed by BLM on the line’s development. By a voice vote, the commission reaffirmed a March 2010 letter (pdf) opposing the use of private lands for the line when a public alternative, or the “northern route,” is available.
Leonard Wortman, a commissioner in Jefferson, said his county of roughly 11,000 residents consists of 72 percent public lands but that about 80 percent of the company’s proposed route follows private lands.
“The company’s preferred private route is less costly because it is shorter and less mountainous,” he said during an interview at the commission headquarters in Boulder, where he unfurled a 6-foot-long county map on a coffee table. “I think NorthWestern Energy, DEQ and the BLM, whether they admit it or not, have a morbid fear of environmental groups.”
With a red marker, Wortman traced his county’s preferred route on the map. It follows the BPA line, skirts the edge of a subdivision and slices through the Elkhorn Mountains. “That would get it on public land probably 95 percent or better,” he said.
Wortman’s proposal would likely rile environmental groups including the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Montana Environmental Information Center, both based in Helena. A public route also could upset tribal leaders who object to the line passing over ancient teepee rings, pictographs, hunting features and vision quest sites that are scattered across public lands in the state, said Tim Bozorth, field manager with the BLM in Dillon.
“A full public route is not feasible, either engineering-wise or politically, and they know it,” said Jim Jenson, executive director for the environmental center.
The group is particularly concerned that the northern route would cross the 160,000-acre Elkhorns Wildlife Management Unit, which features more than 2,000 elk as well as bighorn sheep, mule and white-tailed deer, black bear, moose and a variety of birds.
“We will do everything in our power to prevent that from being built,” he said, adding that Congress mandated the area be specifically managed for the enhancement of elk.
Feds weigh in
Federal officials have warned the northern route would also require changes to land-use plans designed to preserve the viewsheds of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge forest.
The Western Electricity Coordinating Council, one of nine regional grid reliability agencies, initially said the line must be built at least one span length – or about 1,500 feet – away from the BPA line to ensure natural disasters or terrorist attacks would not threaten both lines at once.
That would have required a completely new corridor be cut through the forest, Jenson said.
WECC has recently indicated that the lines may be placed closer together, although it has not said how close.
Mark Mackiewicz, a BLM program manager based in Salt Lake City, said his agency is working to improve its survey of cultural sites along the line’s path and is developing a system to efficiently amend several land management plans, a process that took substantial coordination with the agency’s Washington office, he said.
He said there are “some definite changes” since Montana released its preliminary route for the line but that he wasn’t at liberty to discuss them publicly. The northern route through the national forests appears an increasingly viable option now that WECC is amending its buffer guidelines, Mackiewicz said.
But he cautioned that the agencies are continuing to pursue the path of least environmental harm.
“We’re not moving this alternative on public lands just willy nilly,” Mackiewicz said. “If we can determine it is put on private lands with minimal impacts to resources, we’ll do it. We’re not just going to move impacts from one area to another. It’s just not good business, period.”
A case in point is BLM’s decision not to consider a route that would cut through dozens of miles of Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument, despite calls from local farmers to do so, Mackiewicz said.
“This is a resource … that belongs to everybody in America,” he said of the nearly half-million-acre monument of ancient lava flows, scattered cinder cones and sagebrush. “I don’t think the American public would take going to Craters of the Moon and seeing a 500-kilovolt power line with 200-foot structures.”
‘Difficult, time-consuming projects’
While the delays have added new permitting and legal costs, Rapkoch, the NorthWestern spokeswoman, said the siting of the BPA line in the 1970s and ’80s provoked similar controversy.
In 1985, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Trout Unlimited, the National Wildlife Federation and the Montana Wildlife Federation filed suit over a permit granted to the Montana Power Co. and BPA for the 500-kilovolt line, arguing the environmental assessment and planned mitigation measures were inadequate to protect Rock Creek in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness area.
The lawsuit was settled with the creation of $1.65 million trust fund, the Rock Creek Trust, which was used to protect “blue ribbon” trout waters, open space and biodiversity, according to Greg Tollefson, conservation director of the Five Valleys Land Trust, based in Missoula.
“I don’t think our experience on the MSTI line is anything other than what other companies have experienced in terms of constructing a long linear facility,” Rapkoch said. “They’re really difficult, time-consuming projects.”
Now, environmental groups including the Western Environmental Law Center are beginning to reach out to counties to offer assistance evaluating potential transmission routes.
The group met last month with commissioners from Madison, Jefferson and Beaverhead counties to present a decision support system that factors economic benefits, public input, environmental impacts and engineering costs into the siting of the transmission line.
The study drew the support of the Sonoran Institute, the Craighead Foundation, Future West, the Renewable Northwest Project and Headwaters Economic and was commissioned by Madison County for $7,500.
Monique DiGiorgio, a conservation strategist for WELC, called it a “transparent, interactive process.”
But Garrison, the rancher south of Butte, said she remains unconvinced that private lands should be sacrificed for a private company’s gain.
For one, wildlife impacts will occur regardless of whether the line crosses public or private lands since species including deer, elk and wolves use their 4,500 acres as much as they do the surrounding BLM and Forest Service lands, she said.
“BLM was very careful picking a route that was non-roadless, picking a route that was noncontroversial,” she said. “What’s the difference between having it on our land or the forest, as far as wildlife are concerned? Because we have the wildlife, too.”
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