- Associated Press - Sunday, March 27, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - A proposal for two high-voltage transmission lines crossing southwestern Idaho that faced opposition from private property owners has been altered to instead cross more of the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area.

The 1,700-page draft document released by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management earlier this month maps out potential options for two segments of the Gateway West project that each span more than 125 miles.

The segments are part of a larger, 1,000-mile transmission line project to deliver 1,500 megawatts from southern Wyoming through southern Idaho to points west, potentially tapping into Wyoming’s wind energy.

Idaho Power, which serves Idaho and Oregon, and Rocky Mountain Power, which serves Idaho, Utah and Wyoming, proposed Gateway West and received approval on eight of the 10 segments.

However, the plan ran into problems in the Birds of Prey area.

The BLM mapped two routes across the region - negotiated with Idaho Power, county officials and private landowners - that included going through the Birds of Prey area. But as the BLM completed its guidelines for managing National Landscape Conservation Areas, a designation put into law in 2009 by Congress, agency officials realized that they were required to mitigate for the negative effects of the lines by doing work to enhance the resources for raptors that the Birds of Prey area was designated to protect. Power lines could not be justified without mitigation work.

The BLM, lacking time to reopen negotiations, instead chose two routes through mostly private land in Kuna and Melba and mostly public land in Owyhee County. But that move angered residents and local and state officials who had participated in the negotiations with the BLM.

In 2014, Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power submitted revised applications for the two segments, and the BLM determined that additional environmental analysis was needed, resulting in the draft supplemental environmental impact statement released earlier this month. The draft includes mitigation work in the Birds of Prey area.

“We are very pleased with the release of the document and we are looking forward to providing our comments,” said Margaret Oler, spokeswoman for Rocky Mountain Power. She said the company was still reviewing the document and wasn’t prepared to comment on that, but noted the benefits for customers when the transmission lines are built. “Flexibility, reliability and capacity - all of those things will be enhanced,” she said.

Stephanie McCurdy, spokeswoman for Idaho Power, said the company was also still reviewing the document and “we’re working on putting together comments on it in conjunction with Rocky Mountain Power.”

Public meetings are planned in April with comments due by June 9. A final decision is expected in the fall.

BLM spokeswoman Heather Feeney said a priority has been to locate the transmission lines on as much public land as possible while trying to avoid sensitive areas and private land.

“There’s no way to do that entirely,” she said. “It’s increasingly difficult to avoid everything.”

The draft plan analyzes seven pairs of possible route combinations. The alternative preferred by the BLM crosses the Birds of Prey area the least with about 9 miles.

Feeney said developing the draft supplemental environmental impact statement gave the BLM time to look at possible mitigation needed on the Birds of Prey area. Mitigation proposals in the draft include habitat restoration, which would benefit ground squirrels and other prey on which the many eagles and hawks that inhabit the area feed.

“On the whole, we think that Gateway West has the potential of bringing a lot more clean energy onto the system so we’re engaging in the BLM process to make sure the line is built in a way that protects wildlife and does enable clean energy,” said Ben Otto of the Idaho Conservation League.

If work on the two segments is approved, Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power say construction of the entire 1,000-mile powerline will take place in phases between 2019 and 2024.

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