BLM routes Gateway West through Rockland Valley

Changes in sage grouse plan could change route

by Daniel Moore
Press staff writer

After years of study, the Bureau of Land Management has decided where the Gateway West Transmission Line will be routed on federal land. The Power County Task Force, which has been following the issue closely, does not like it because the route goes over irrigated farmland in the Rockland Valley.

“The task force noted that economic studies conclude that large electric utility transmission systems can have a very negative impact upon agricultural production in the vicinity of those projects,” said a press release from the task force.

However, it is still a long way before construction, and there may still be changes afoot in the final route design. The power companies in charge of the project, Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power, have dozens of permits to obtain, including permits from every county in Idaho the line crosses. Construction in Power County would not begin until 2019 at the very earliest, said Margaret Oler with Rocky Mountain Power.

The BLM only approved segments one through seven of the plan. Segments eight and nine did not have enough consideration of alternate routes, was the BLM’s reason to continue the study in that region. Segments five and seven run through Power County.

Segments eight and nine cover west Idaho. The communities of Melba and Kuna protested the line. The line also faces the difficulty of circumventing wilderness set aside for birds of prey in that region.

Birds of prey are not the only bird standing in the way of the line. The BLM rejected a longer route on public land because it came too close to sage grouse habitat, sending it through Power County instead. Sage grouse could soon be listed as an endangered species.

The Power County Task Force argued that the maps the BLM used to show sage grouse habitat are out of date, especially compared to a plan commissioned by Idaho Governor Butch Otter.

The BLM is now considering several different sage grouse habitat models that could replace the model they used to make the route. If the BLM changes its maps to one that would allow the longer route on public land, that may be an opportunity to change the BLM’s decision about the Gateway West route, said Walt George, project manager with the BLM. The plans will be finalized sometime in 2014.

That’s the hope of the Power County Task Force. The task force is focusing on participating in the sage grouse management plan process, said Doug Balfour, an attorney representing the task force. It will also continue to propose an ordinance that will uphold private property rights in the county, Balfour said.

Governor Otter was also unhappy about the decision.

“This federal process has gone on too long, and it continues to be fraught with uncertainty and confusion. This week’s announcement raises at least as many questions as it answers. I’ve made no secret about my position – we need Gateway West. I am committed to ensuring that Idaho voices are heard on this issue, including those of our counties and private property owners…my collaborative sage-grouse plan establishes a model for the kind of approach that’s needed,” Otter said in a press release from his office.

Another sticking point for the task force — that the lines could be buried underground — was dismissed by the BLM. Burying the lines would disturb the environment too much as well as be too expensive, the BLM said in its official decision.

Idaho law says that counties have the right to route power lines, which is different than in most states, where a regulatory board routes the lines. The BLM decision states that Power County and local landowners, along with the power companies, are responsible to route the route through the private property in the county. The BLM decision just approves the route on federal lands.

It’s possible that the county could, hypothetically, not approve the route on any private lands, leaving gaps between the approved public land route, said George. However, there is enough time before construction begins to see what changes the transmission line may undergo, and those with grievances have many options to voice their concerns in the permitting process, or even before the Interior Board of Land Appeals, before heading to court, he said.

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