Gateway West Transmission Line

The Board of Directors submitted the folowing comments on the Gateway West Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on June 9th, 2016:

To: Bureau of Land Management

From: Golden Eagle Audubon Society

Re: Comments on the Gateway West Transmission Line Project Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement

Thank you for this opportunity to comment on the Gateway West Transmission Line Project Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement released by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on March 11, 2016.  We, the Board of Directors, write these comments on behalf of members of Golden Eagle Audubon Society (GEAS). GEAS represents some 1,100 members primarily residing in southwest Idaho.  Our strategic focus is the conservation of birds, wildlife, and their habitats and the promotion of wildlife appreciation by southwest Idaho residents.  GEAS has a lengthy history supporting birds, wildlife and habitat in southwest Idaho, including a keen interest in the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area (SRBOP).  We are aware of the difficult challenge BLM and stakeholders in southwest Idaho face in appropriately siting Gateway West’s Routes 9 and 8, and we applaud BLM’s commitment to a transparent and collaborative process.  We believe that decisions to site the transmission lines should be based on the best available science, the needs and concerns of residents living in the vicinity of the proposed Routes, sound conservation practices that complement –not conflict– with the legislation that defines the SRBOP’s purpose, and tempered by common sense.  Using each of these criteria, GEAS believes that Alternative 1 is clearly the most desirable option especially for Segment 9. Furthermore, we feel strongly that BLM and stakeholders would be doing a grave disservice to bird populations and their habitat if other Alternatives are selected.

GEAS supports the Segment 8 Revised Proposed Route as mapped on page 2-23 (Figure 2.3-4a) and described on pages 2-23 and 2-24 of the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (Draft SEIS).  It is clearly the best compromise for that route and easily meets the above-listed criteria for appropriate siting.  The proposed route provides the least social and ecological disruption, and has the potential to enhance raptor breeding performance with appropriate modifications for tower configuration. Placement through the northern SRBOP can contribute mitigation to help recover native vegetation to the benefit of raptors and their prey.  Finally, most if not all local stakeholders agree that this is appropriate siting.

Regarding Segment 9, GEAS gives our strongest support for Alternative 1 – Proposed Action, as stated above.  We defend this position by first addressing other proposed Alternatives.

 

Alternatives 3, 4, 5, and 7

GEAS is adamantly opposed to any route through relatively intact sagebrush habitat (e.g., Route 9k) even if the Segment is ‘strategically’ routed to skirt Preliminary Habitat Management Areas for sage-grouse and Sagebrush Focal Areas in an attempt to downplay the adverse impacts that fragmentation may have on sagebrush systems and the sensitive species that require intact sagebrush for persistence.  Our position – wholly on ecological grounds – is supported by volumes of research on the ecological disruption caused by fragmenting sagebrush.  We refer you to the monograph “Greater Sage-Grouse: Ecology and Conservation of a Landscape Species and its Habitats,” (Knick and Conley 2011) particularly Chapter 12 “Ecological Influence and Pathways of Land Use in Sagebrush” and citations therein for a comprehensive literature review of the effects of fragmentation on sage-grouse and sagebrush systems.  Removing and fragmenting sagebrush has been the primary cause of the decline of greater sage-grouse – the single most notable bellwether of the sagebrush system. Whereas we concur with BLM that special designation sage-grouse habitat should be avoided, we feel that the proposed 9k Route represents a very poor compromise because the area impacted by placing transmission lines and supporting infrastructure has a much greater spatial and ecological extent than simply the tower footprints.  For example, environmental protection measure TESWL-6 (page 3.11-28) indicates that disturbance will be kept to further than 4 miles of “occupied greater sage-grouse leks”.  We know that ravens in this area regularly forage an average of 4 miles from roosts but may make much longer forays (Engel and Young 1992).  Furthermore, female sage-grouse typically nest upwards of 2 miles from a lek center.  Thus, placing transmission lines accessible to roosting ravens in near proximity to sage-grouse leks increases the likelihood of direct sage-grouse mortality through nest predation.  More importantly, creating avenues through relatively intact sagebrush habitat brings along an abundance of other potential impacts that, in GEAS’s opinion, are hard to justify.  Transmission lines and their necessary access points bring along greater access for mammalian predators, an increased opportunity for invasive plants, and an invitation to off-highway vehicles (OHV) and other motorized uses in areas that are currently not easily accessible.  BLM’s own analyses assert that OHV users will expand the disturbance footprint off of access points given the opportunity.  Increased invasive annual grasses coupled with increased human presence and motor vehicle use is a recipe for increased wildfire risk – a potentially devastating combination for a sagebrush system that is already highly susceptible to fire and which does not respond well to even very intensive restoration efforts (e.g., Arkle and others 2014).  GEAS feels that BLM’s preference to route Segment 9 in or near intact sagebrush is a poor land management decision, especially given the other available Alternatives.

 Alternatives 2 and 6

GEAS supports these alternatives on ecological grounds even though we are aware of the intense social pressure opposed to these Routes. Routing Segment 9 through largely private lands along the northern Owyhee front would be expected to have minimal impact on birds and wildlife.  Although the Resource Advisory Committee (RAC) Gateway Subcommittee analysis indicates these Alternatives would have unacceptable adverse impacts on resources and communities in Owyhee County, some of these impacts may be avoided by burying lines at key locations (i.e., through important viewsheds) where opposition is most intense.  Regardless, GEAS would support Alternatives 2 and 6 regarding Segment 9 as it poses minimal threat to birds, wildlife and habitats.

 Alternative 1

 The Proposed Action (Revised Proposed Routes for Segments 8 and 9) is supported by every major local stakeholder including the Proponents (and therefore has the least political resistance), is supported by the analyses of the RAC Subcommittee and unanimously endorsed by the full RAC as its preferred alternative.  Furthermore, this Alternative represents an opportunity that the BLM and the Draft SEIS seem to be ignoring: the singular best opportunity to fund and deliver science-based habitat restoration in the SRBOP that clearly supports the enabling legislation by recovering habitat for raptor prey. Therefore, GEAS strongly supports Alternative 1 and recommends that BLM identify it as the preferred alternative.

 The legislation that established the SRBOP in 1993 stated that its purpose was to be for the "conservation, protection and enhancement of raptor populations and habitat" while allowing “for diverse appropriate uses of lands in the area to the extent consistent with the maintenance and enhancement of raptor populations and habitats.”  Properly engineered and sited power lines and transmission towers have great potential to enhance conditions for raptors (Kochert and Olendorff 1999, Ledger and Hobbs 1999, Dixon and others 2013). Therefore, peer-reviewed science supports the notion that thoughtful placement of the 500-kV Gateway West line in SRBOP is not only consistent with, but supportive of SRBOP enabling legislation.

 The Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 is also germane to management of SRBOP and its world class raptor community. The Act allows for compatible activities and uses of lands within National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) units. The Act states that a ‘compatible use is one that does not conflict with the values identified in the legislative language’ for each NLCS unit. Again, because research and practice has shown that properly installed transmission lines can benefit raptor populations, routing Segment 9 through SRBOP is consistent with the Public Lands Management Act language.

 Guidance for managing National Conservation Areas (NCA) is also provided in the 2012 BLM Manual 6220.  The Manual states as the 2nd Objective guiding implementation of the policy that BLM should “Effectively manage valid existing rights and compatible uses within Monuments and NCAs”.  Even though that language is clearly stated on page 1 of the Manual 6220, and there is clear empirical evidence that powerlines are a ‘compatible use’ with the ‘enabling legislation’ which calls for ‘conservation, protection and enhancement of raptor populations and habitat,’ BLM seems reluctant to accept this possibility and the multiple benefits Alternative 1 would have to raptors and the SRBOP.  Sadly it appears that guidance described in Manual 6220 is not accurate or appropriately applied to the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area.  BLM’s interpretation of not wanting to set a precedent by allowing a transmission line within a National Conservation Area is a confusing set of logic given that there are currently several transmission lines in SRBOP and, furthermore, all 7 of the Alternatives identified in the Draft SEIS propose Routes that cross portions of the Morley Nelson Snake River NCA. Setting a precedent, therefore, should not be an issue. Actual resource damage (and the potential to mitigate it) should be the main concern. The BLM's own data have shown that 500-kV transmission lines within the SRBOP can be compatible with raptors.

 The real conundrum, in our opinion, is that BLM seems to be ignoring a very rare opportunity to set a socio-ecological precedence in order to satisfy a minor constituency and a narrow interpretation of standing policy.  Whereas the Conservation Lands Foundation sees additional lines in SRBOP as an undesirable precedent based on qualitative opinion, reams of peer-reviewed scientific publications as well as locally-based knowledge, including consensus of the highly informed RAC subcommittee, indicate that 500-kV transmission lines are proven to enhance raptor nesting opportunities and therefore are (1) consistent with the enabling legislation; (2) consistent with language in the omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009; and (3) allowable under the 2012 BLM Manual.  Placing Gateway West transmission lines in SRBOP does not ‘set a precedent’ for NCA management since there are already 500-kV and other transmission lines in the SRBOP and they have been there since SRBOP was created.   Furthermore, because the Proponents are amenable to considerable investments in habitat mitigation – a process that will be guided by peer-reviewed science and local restoration ecology experts – placing lines in the SRBOP would present an unparalleled opportunity to recover habitat for raptor prey and thereby provide a net benefit to raptor populations and habitat.

 GEAS asks BLM: “why would you turn your back on this unique opportunity to support the enabling legislation and one of the most unique raptor communities on Earth?”   The opportunity the Proponents provide with the Mitigation and Enhancement Portfolio – millions of dollars of investment in habitat restoration – is not likely to happen again.  It has not yet in the 23 year history of SRBOP and no one has ever offered a similar opportunity for such broad-scale, science-informed restoration opportunity in any NCA to our knowledge.  Passing up this opportunity now is tantamount to failing the enabling legislation and allowing further habitat degradation to the detriment of raptor prey habitat.  If that poor decision was compounded by disruption to the already crippled sagebrush ecosystems (e.g., Soda Fire) by the addition of Route 9k along the Owyhee foothills, it would likely be recorded as one of the worst environmental management decision in the history of southern Idaho.

 GEAS implores BLM to support the SRBOP enabling legislation, to build upon the best available science regarding sagebrush system function and restoration ecology, to leverage the mitigation and enhancement opportunities presented by the Proponents, and to apply some common sense.  Select Alternative 1 as the preferred alternative and work together with your locally invested partners and stakeholders to protect important sagebrush, enhance nesting and foraging habitats for raptors inhabiting SRBOP, and lead the community in the most promising habitat restoration opportunity we are ever likely to see in the SRBOP and in southwest Idaho.

 On behalf of the Members and Board of Directors

Golden Eagle Audubon Society

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Golden Eagle Audubon has long been active in conservation at the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area.  As some of our most tenured members know, GEAS members were instrumental in having the Conservation Area recognized and staffed with quality scientists in the very early days.  Recently, the GEAS Board and Conservation Committee have become active participants in planning for the Gateway West Transmission line.  Gateway West is slated to run from Glenrock, WY to the Hemingway Substation near Melba, ID.  The Bureau of Land Management has been working on Environmental Impact Analyses for several years and all of the line segments have been approved except the westernmost segments slated for southwest Idaho.  We live in a special place with lots of special birds.  The GEAS Board is committed to seeing these final segments are placed in a way that protects and enhances birds while delivering electricity and powering the regional economy.

In 2014, GEAS submitted two sets of comments <insert links to comments> to the sub-committee of the BLM's Resource Advisory Committee charged with making official recommendations regarding the Mitigation and Enhancement Portfolio offered by the "Companies" (Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power, who will install and manage Gateway West).

 The first real question was "where should the line be routed?".  Though that answer has not been formally resolved, the GEAS Conservation Committee (on behalf of the membership) submitted a soundly argued set of comments advocating that the line should be routed through the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area.  That might sound counter-intuitive given that the Conservation Area is world-renown for it's spectacular populations of falcons, eagles, hawks and owls.  However, the other proposed routes would run either through densely populated human areas (and therefore a political dead-end) or through very high-quality sagebrush habitat in northern Owyhee County.  Those sagebrush areas provide very high-quality habitat for greater sage-grouse and other birds and wildlife which are known to be declining rapidly throughout the west.  Placing a transmission line through such valuable habitat poses all kinds of problems.  First of all, the construction disturbance would remove lots of good habitat.  Second, the line itself and the service road that needs to accompany it would fragment the relatively intact sagebrush habitats ... and that fragmentation presents an open door to invasive plants (like cheatgrass) and to mobile mammalian predators.  Both of these are just bad news for sagebrush-dependent birds.  Finally, the overhead lines and the towers attract raptors and ravens which could cause increased depredation on the very sensitive sagebrush birds, such as sagebrush sparrow, Brewer's sparrow, sage thrasher and the greater sage-grouse which is currently being reviewed for listing as threatened or endangered.

Our simple conclusion was that a route through the Birds of Prey Area presents the lesser of two evils.  But, upon further assessment, it's actually much MUCH better than that.  First of all, there are already powerlines running through the NCA, so much of the disturbance (described above) has already occurred.  While that, in and of itself is not 'good' at least placing lines in the NCA wouldn't cause new fragmentation.  Second, much of the vegetation under the proposed route in the NCA has already been destroyed.  Again not good.  But as you'll see, we think that actually provides an opportunity.  Third, federal regulations require that any actions in a National Conservation Area must be "consistent with the enabling legislation."  In the case of the Birds of Prey Area, it means that installing a powerline there can not negatively impact raptors, their prey or their habitat.  But wait - as noted above -powerlines can actually attract raptors.  In fact, extensive research by Karen Steenhof, Mike Kochert and their colleagues have shown that powerlines can improve conditions for raptors in the NCA.  It's not as simple as build-it-and-they-will-come, but when constructed with consideration for birds (that is, in ways that minimize electrocution and enhance nesting and perching opportunities) powerlines can be consistent with the enabling legislation.  Regarding prey and habitat: well, the habitat is already degraded and the Companies are willing (required) to compensate for any disturbance installation creates.  So, placing lines in the NCA can actually improve habitats for raptors and their prey!  While it is true that mitigation funds could just a well be used to repair habitats along the Owyhee County routes, powerlines there would present a new, long-term stress on sagebrush birds.  That's not as acute of an issue in the NCA.  Thus, GEAS Conservation Committee members feel that a route in the NCA not only poses less of a threat to birds but actually provides a unique opportunity to improve habitat where it's most needed.

The second question: how to best take advantage of this opportunity, is one we're still working on.  If you'd like to help, we could sure use you.  Visit the Contact Us page and let us know.

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