Idaho's power line route reveals clashing values, dueling processes

No matter who wins the election Tuesday, the Bureau of Land Management is going to have to thread a needle to find routes Idaho Power Co. and Rocky Mountain Power can use for the Gateway West power line across southern Idaho.

The decision to toss out two routes across the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey area that had been negotiated by the involved parties has brought ire from local, state and national Idaho politicians. At the same time, it has brought praise from a national environmental group seeking to preserve the protections of the landscape-conservation system that includes the Birds of Prey area.

This flap doesn’t even touch on the strong opposition to the route across private lands in Power and Cassia counties.The line was first designed to provide more access to Utah and West markets for Wyoming’s coal-powered electric generation.

In the meantime, Rocky Mountain Power and others have developed hundreds of megawatts of wind energy in Wyoming and Idaho. The completion of the line could resolve at least some of Idaho Power’s feud with developers of wind and alternative energy because the utility can make money wheeling power over its lines from wind plants to other utilities.

Building a new, larger “smart grid” transmission system that is more secure, stable and connects East and West has become a national energy priority. Both political parties want it done.

In 2009, Ada and Owyhee county officials protested that the proposed Gateway line and its high towers come too close to communities there, limiting development and affecting residents’ quality of life. So the communities worked out two separate deals with the utilities and local BLM officials to move the routes away from private land to the Birds of Prey area on BLM land south of Kuna.

After those deals were worked out locally, the BLM completed rules for managing National Landscape Conservation Areas, a designation put into law by the 2009 Omnibus Lands Act (which also, separately, designated wilderness in Owyhee County). Those rules established a process for siting rights of way across National Landscape Conservation Areas, of which the Birds of Prey Area is one.

The new rules require that the BLM show the area and the resources it was set aside to protect — healthy raptor populations — would be enhanced by a change such as a power line. If they don’t, the lines could still be built — but Idaho Power Co. would have to pay for mitigation to ensure that, overall, raptors would be enhanced.

That’s why Brian O’Donnell, executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation in Durango, Colo., thinks the BLM has done the right thing by moving the routes out of the Birds of Prey area.

“What happens there also impacts what happens in the California desert and any state where we have conservation lands,” he said.

So what we have are not only clashing values, but dueling processes. Interior Secretary Salazar now has to find a new consensus by going through his own process. This is one of those issues that will move forward no matter what happens Tuesday to Salazar’s boss.

Whoever ultimately wins control of the White House and Interior Department will still have to face the legal and political realities on the ground.