Otter, ag producers say BLM rushed Gateway West approval
By John O’Connell
POCATELLO, Idaho — Gov. Butch Otter and southern Idaho farmers and ranchers in the path of the proposed Gateway West transmission line believe the Bureau of Land Management has rushed its decision on the project, using guidelines that overstate potential impacts to sage grouse.
The BLM recently released its Gateway West record of decision, authorizing Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power to pursue rights-of-way through federal land on eight of 10 project segments.
The document’s preferred route — stretching roughly 1,200 miles from Glenrock, Wyo., to Melba, Idaho — passes through 80 percent private agricultural land and 20 percent public land in Power and Cassia counties, to avoid sage grouse habitat.
Tom Perry, the governor’s legal counsel, explained BLM based its Gateway decision on internal interim guidelines barring any development in sage grouse habitat.
A comprehensive sage grouse management plan, ordered by a federal judge for southern Idaho and southwest Montana, could be finalized as early as next fall. A BLM document and a version developed by Otter are both under consideration as preferred sage grouse management alternatives.
The Otter plan — allowing infrastructure in less critical sage grouse habitat in exchange for mitigation — would open the door to an agriculture-backed Gateway route crossing half private and half public land in southern Idaho.
While Otter acknowledges the need for the transmission line, he believes impacts to private land owners should be minimized.
“The governor had suggested on quite a few opportunities that BLM take a hard look at his alternative for putting this together,” Perry said, emphasizing Otter’s plan is based on decades of Fish and Game data and stakeholder input. “You’re dealing with what should be complementary processes, and at times they seem to be at odds with each other, which is kind of puzzling to the governor.”
Attorney Doug Balfour, who represents producers in Bannock, Oneida, Power and Cassia counties and the Power and Cassia county commissions, believes the record of decision should have been delayed pending approval of a sage grouse plan. He said Cassia and Power counties have both adopted ordinances opposing the BLM’s route, and Idaho law grants siting authority to counties. He vows his clients will fight all the way to the Idaho Supreme Court, if necessary.
“It goes through very rich agricultural land,” Balfour said. “(Farmers and ranchers) are a little bit disappointed in BLM that their concerns were not given the same consideration that other concerns were.”
Heather Feeney, spokeswoman for the BLM’s Idaho office, said the agency is required by law to render a prompt decision for the applicants. Furthermore, she stressed the project is identified as a national priority under the president’s energy strategy. The decision can always be revisited once the sage grouse management plan is implemented, she said.
“We cannot make decisions based on what might be prospective information,” Feeney said.
Rocky Mountain Power spokeswoman Margaret Oler emphasized the record of decision is just another step in a long process, and construction will take place in phases. Her company has yet to set a schedule for working with landowners and acquiring rights-of-way through private property.