- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 2, 2003

ROANOKE The U.S. Forest Service has given American Electric Power (AEP) final approval to cut through parts of the Jefferson National Forest, including habitat for endangered bats, to build a 765-kilovolt transmission line.

"This is the decision we've been waiting for," said AEP spokesman Todd Burns.

AEP has been lobbying for the transmission line for a decade to bolster its power grid and to deal better with the region's growing demand for electricity.

"This system hasn't been upgraded since 1973," Mr. Burns said. "Since then, the demand has increased more than 135 percent."

The $287 million project, which would connect transmission stations in Wyoming County, W.Va., and Jacksons Ferry, Va., is expected to run 90 miles through state and federal land, part of the Appalachian Trail, the New River and 38 private residences.

Forest officials gave preliminary approval to the plan earlier this year and released their final decision and environmental-impact statement Tuesday.

Forest Supervisor Bill Damon said allowing the transmission line through 11 miles of the forest would actually be better than cutting a detour around the forest.

"While it is feasible to construct a line without crossing the national forest, the impacts on nonfederal lands would also be substantial, affect more residences and affect more land," Mr. Damon said in a statement.

Virginia gave AEP its approval in May 2001 to build on state land. AEP still needs a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, but Mr. Burns said that he expects the permit to go through as the Corps will be basing its decision on the same environmental studies the Forest Service considered.

To ease the stress on the environment, the Forest Service has instructed AEP to use darkened steel for its towers so they blend in better with the surrounding trees. The 175-foot corridor for the transmission line also will be selectively cleared, leaving shorter trees such as dogwoods and redbuds.

Forest Service spokesman Ken Landgraf said a shelter for hikers along the Appalachian Trail in Bland County also may be moved to keep the towers out of view.

"First we'll try to locate the towers so they won't be seen, but it's hard to tell what it will be like with all the vegetation," Mr. Landgraf said.

In addition, AEP has been asked to respect the habitat of about 235 Indiana bats, which live around the Skydusky Hollow area of Bland County. During the summer, the utility is prohibited from clearing trees within a five-mile radius of the bats' known habitat, Mr. Landgraf said.

Outside the boundary, AEP must conduct its own studies to ensure the bats are not living in trees about to be cut, or schedule its clearing operations during the winter months, when the bats are hibernating in caves.

AEP, based in Columbus, Ohio, is one of the largest electric utilities in the country, with 5 million customers linked to an 11-state transmission grid. The Wyoming-Jacksons Ferry project will reinforce a system that delivers electricity to southern West Virginia, Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

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