BOISE – A Hailey, Idaho-based environmental organization has appealed the Bureau of Land Management’s approval of a high-voltage transmission line route through sage grouse habitat on public land and requested a halt of the start of construction.
The Gateway West Transmission Line was jointly proposed by Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power and would span more than 1,000 miles from Glenrock, Wyo., to Melba, Idaho, including 850 miles of 500-killovolt line.
Officials of Western Watersheds say the route they prefer, BLM’s Alternative 1, would have less impact on the embattled native bird and is also the preferred route of the power companies.
However, BLM officials note Alternative 1 would also cross through 50.5 miles of agricultural and private land, mostly in Gooding County, compared to 32.7 miles under the agency’s approved route, called Alternative 5.
Farmers have fought different segments of the line passing through Power and Cassia counties. Their attorney, however, has suggested a route that would minimize disturbance on private lands. In November 2013, BLM approved a record of decision for eight of 10 sections of its preferred route, including the segments contested by farmers.
A record of decision on the remaining two segments was approved Jan. 20, having been delayed to review impacts on the Morley Nelson Birds of Prey National Conservation Area in Western Idaho. An appeals period on that decision ended Feb. 24. BLM spokeswoman Heather Feeney said a few other appeals were also filed, and all will be considered by the Interior Board of Land Appeals.
Feeney said BLM’s approved option avoids priority sage grouse habitat under the agency’s recently revised land-use plan. Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds, believes the habitat classifications are based more on politics than science.
“The idea that what you have is less critical habitat is a fiction,” Molvar said. “To us it makes no sense to re-route this transmission line all the way south to head into sensitive sage grouse habitat.”
Molvar also questions the need for the line. Mark Stokes, engineering project leader with Idaho Power, said the line will help the power companies transmit solar and wind power that it’s federally obligated to buy. He said solar and wind power is highly variable and must be transmitted to where it’s most needed or can be sold.
Stokes said the companies are now working with local officials and landowners, and construction won’t start until somewhere between 2019 and 2024.
Doug Balfour, the farmers’ attorney, believes Western Watersheds’ appeal may help “delay the project again.”
“Nothing is going to happen quickly,” Balfour said. “Maybe it will inspire BLM to suddenly talk with us.”
Balfour said Idaho law grants siting authority for power lines to counties, and county commissioners support his growers’ cause, which could leave the line “dead-ended” on the federal land.
Stokes said the power companies will work diligently with landowners, but ultimately, they have the option of approaching the Public Utilities Commission to pursue condemnation.
“We haven’t done that in decades,” Stokes said.
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