New path sought for high-voltage transmission lines in Idaho

Federal officials on Monday reopened public comments on proposed routes for two high-voltage transmission lines in southwestern Idaho intended to modernize the Pacific Northwest's energy grid.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced it will take comments through Sept. 27 for two segments of the Gateway West project proposed by Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power.

The BLM in January approved routes for the two 500-kilovolt transmission lines on public land in Idaho's Gooding, Elmore, Owyhee, Cassia and Twin Falls counties.

But legislation by Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson signed into law in May by President Donald Trump mandates segments not connected to those routes.

The legislation removes 2,800 acres (1,133 hectares) from the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area so 74 miles (119 kilometers) of transmission lines can go through.

The BLM is now trying to connect the remaining 250 miles (400 kilometers) of transmission lines with those segments. As part of that process, it's taking public comments for an environmental assessment.

"We need to make sure the alternative we now select connects with those two statutory rights of way," said BLM spokeswoman Heather Feeney.

The 1,000-mile (1600-kilometer) Gateway West project is one side of a giant triangle of transmission lines that Rocky Mountain Power says are necessary to meet future demands in the region and improve reliability. One part is finished, and the other segment is at an earlier stage in the environmental review process.

The segment going through Idaho would deliver power from southern Wyoming to points west, potentially tapping into Wyoming's wind energy. Federal officials have already approved the rest of the Gateway West project, but no work has started.

Feeney said a draft of the environmental assessment on the remaining segments should be ready by the end of this year, with a final decision expected in the spring.

"The route through the Birds of Prey was a fair and balanced outcome to this transmission siting effort," said Idaho Power spokeswoman Stephanie McCurdy. "The State of Idaho, local units of government, ranchers, environmental interests and project proponents worked hard together to find this locally driven, common sense solution."

The BLM has been working on the project since 2008, trying to thread the powerlines through a mixture of private, state and public lands that also includes key habitat for imperiled sage grouse and the national conservation area that is prime habitat for raptors.

It's been a difficult process, and the final decision in January was appealed by environmental groups, causing it to head to the Interior Board of Land Appeals.

Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter also asked Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to direct the BLM to reconsider its January decision and review other routes using more federal public land. The BLM then asked the Interior Board of Land Appeals to remand the matter.

The legislation signed into law by President Trump in May ended all that, altering the boundary of the conservation area while setting in place routes for the powerlines. Feeney said most of the segments needed to connect the segments approved by Congress cross BLM land. The legislation approved by Congress, besides removing some land from the conservation area, added 4,000 acres elsewhere.

Several environmental groups involved in the process didn't respond to phone messages left by The Associated Press on Monday.