By Mark Barnes
The Bureau of Land Management hosted open houses in Boise, Kuna and Murphy earlier this week with one more planned open house scheduled for Thursday, May 9, at Melba in the high school. These open houses were an opportunity for the public to see large maps, speak with BLM and Idaho Power representatives and to ask questions about the proposed Gateway West transmission line project. The BLM is seeking comments during a 60-day comment period that ends June 28 about the proposed routes for the transmission lines through and around the communities of Melba and Kuna.
While BLM officials have stressed that no final decisions have been made as to the location of the lines, the preferred route they have selected goes through the southern edges of the Kuna city limits and through a portion of Melba city limits. Idaho Power’s preferred route takes it through the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area.
The BLM, following rules established in the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009, chose the route to not interfere with the Snake River Birds of Prey. The 2009 law states that any project in national conservation areas must be an enhancement and it has been determined by the BLM that this transmission line project does not meet those qualifications at this time.
Patricia Roller, NCA Manager of the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey said that while towers may provide enhanced nesting and perches for birds of prey, the impact on the ground with habitat loss from construction of a road and the tower bases have impacts that need to be recognized.
She said that rabbit populations are already in decline due in part to the decreased sagebrush and grass habitat caused partially by fires and recreational use in recent years.
“Idaho Power and other power companies have avian protection plans to reduce raptor mortality with transmission powers,” said Roller. She added that while the end result may be beneficial to raptors, getting to that point through the construction process is problematic. She pointed out that invasive species such as cheat grass grow in disturbed soil areas caused by roads, off road recreational use and construction. This causes greater fire concerns in an area that the National Interagency Fire Center identifies as a lightning hotspot. And, without prey habitat, we won’t have birds
When asked about paralleling the current 500Kv transmission line that currently crosses the Snake River Birds of Prey area Roller pointed out that the lines can’t cross the Snake River Canyon at the old power line location where there is only room for one line to cross. There are only a few other locations where the canyon is narrow enough to cross without the need to build a road down into the canyon for additional support towers to cross the river.
There are two other locations to cross the Snake River canyon that are in the region. One, which was not given much hope of happening by attendees and BLM officials at the open house, cuts right across the Celebration Park area. The other, which seemed plausible to those in discussions at the open house, was to follow the Idaho Power preferred route, then cut south to Sinker Butte where the canyon is narrow enough to cross. This path uses existing roads and would have less of an impact on habitat.
One concern that the city of Kuna has, according to city attorney Richard Roats, is that the location of the lines may conflict with prior obligations with developers that the city may have.
“City ordinance states that there be no construction within 660 feet of a powerline this size,” said Roats. The current BLM preferred location of the transmission line is in direct conflict with current city ordinance and developers plans for some of the properties underneath the proposed lines.
Unless a solution can be found, through consideration of public comments and local government pressure, the BLM will most likely stick with their preferred alternative route, which at the time it was proposed over half a decade ago, did not interfere with the city limits of Kuna at that time.
The last section of the transmission line project, which begins in Wyoming and crosses over 1,100 miles through Southern Idaho, will be in Ada, Canyon and Owyhee counties. For the first time on any project like this, the BLM is considering a phased implementation so that the project may get underway in Wyoming while decisions are still being finalized on the Western end.
BLM officials wanted to make it clear that people viewing the maps should be aware that these plans are still in the early stages of exact placement of the transmission lines.
According to Scott Flinders, GIS specialist with the consulting firm Tetra Tech who has conducted most of the environmental studies for the project, the centerline of the study corridor on the maps is not necessarily the exact placement for the lines. While studies have been conducted on federally owned land, very few, if any, have been conducted on private land that the transmission lines could cross over. And, individual property owners have not been contacted at this time either.
Representatives with Idaho Power said that once a final determination is made on the route, landowners will be consulted with to determine the least amount of impact if the lines cross their property. Compensation will also be made for those property owners who have their property crossed by the lines. The transmission line towers, at a cost of about $2 million per mile, have to be placed about 1,200-1,300 feet apart and are 145-180 feet tall.
The BLM is encouraging the public to comment and give ideas about the proposed transmission routes. The 60-day comment period will end on June 28. According to BLM representatives, they wish to see constructive comments and not “just whether people like it or not.” Specifically, for residents around or near the proposed routes, they want to know why it should or should not go through specific areas.
Comments can be made online at www.wy.blm.gov/nepa/cfodocs/gateway_west.
Residents may see where the proposed transmission lines are crossing and specific parcel land ownership here: http://gatewaywestproject.com/parcelSearch.aspx
If you wish to read the Environmental Impact Statement you can view it here: