Public Lines on Public Land

The rallying cry that got Idaho Power to reconsider


Roger Findley remembers that fall day two years ago like it was yesterday. He was going through his mail when he found a letter from the Department of Energy and the Bureau of Land Management. The Ontario, Ore., resident almost chucked it.

"I started reading this [with my wife]," he recalled. "Our eyes got as big as silver dollars."

The letter outlined a proposed 299-mile transmission line that Idaho Power wanted to build from the Hemingway substation near Melba to Boardman, Ore. Findley recalls seeing the proposed route and thinking the line would come close to his farm, which is about 10 miles southwest of Ontario.

"My dad moved here when he was 17 with my grandparents. They were dust bowl victims coming from Colorado," said Findley. "I farm part of the original land."

Putting 12-story power lines over prime land used to raise cattle and grow everything from wheat to sugar beets didn't make sense to him.

"This is where we make our livelihoods," said Findley, "There are health concerns, logistical concerns with working around the lines, and concerns over electro-magnetic fields."

Findley's wife, a retired BLM botanist, had an idea about where to put the 550-kilovolt line and get it off private land and onto public. The trouble was convincing Idaho Power. So the Findleys did what Oregonians have a reputation for. They got organized and formed the nonprofit Stop Idaho Power.

Two hundred people packed the Grange Hall in Ontario for the first town hall meeting organized by the Findleys.

"We only prepared 50 handouts," recalled Findley, chuckling. "We went home after that first meeting and I said, 'Now I know how an arsonist feels.' I think we started something big, and we volunteered to lead it."

The Findleys did start something big. Communities throughout Eastern Oregon united to reroute Idaho Power's Boardman to Hemingway Project--or B2H. This grass-roots activism spread like a wildfire through tweets, blogs and phone calls. Stop signs showed up on private fences declaring private property off limits to Idaho's largest utility. It worked. Last year, Idaho Power halted the application and permitting process for the largest power line the Northwest has seen in 20 years.

Kent McCarthy plans transmission and distribution systems for Idaho Power and he's been involved in the Boardman to Hemingway Project. He said the company believed people living in places like Melba and Baker City, Ore., would be happy to have the line. Such projects have historically meant economic development and the guarantee of reliable energy.

So Idaho Power was surprised with the groundswell of grass-roots activism. "We knew that people would be vocal," said McCarthy. "But they were more vocal and more involved than we thought they would be."

Stop Idaho Power launched a blog detailing the B2H project. E-mails and documents from Idaho Power went up on the site. "Twenty years ago, we would not have been nearly as successful as today," said Findley. "We could instantly keep people informed and get people to write letters through our website."

From the beginning, the group, which sometimes attracted 400 people to its meetings, involved Idaho Power.

"We took Idaho Power company officials on a tour to show them where the land was that they wanted to put the line, and then we showed them where it should go," said Findley.

The goal, he said, wasn't to stop the line but to get it off private land and onto public BLM land in Malheur County. There's less red tape putting power lines on private property. Putting a power line across public land triggers the National Environmental Policy Act, which means lengthy and exhaustive environmental reviews and public involvement.

Findley said Stop Idaho Power took the approach of "let's get a cup of coffee and talk." That tactic didn't work. So the nonprofit collected $20,000 in donations and hired a lawyer.

"We had groups like Stop Idaho Power, Move Idaho Power and Protect Parma and Protect Canyon County," said McCarthy. "They convinced us that there was a lot of opposition and the community needed to be heard better than the scoping process."

That opposition largely came from Eastern Oregon from people angry at the thought of seeing swooping lines on giant towers cutting across wide open valleys like in the Baker City area. People worried the B2H would disrupt irrigation, make prime farmland useless, destroy the scenery and lower employment and tax revenues.

In Malheur County, Stop Idaho Power argued that county planners had purposefully preserved farmland rather than paving the way for development. In group documents, they noted that residents there "should not bear the burden of huge towers because Idaho thinks Malheur County is 'not developed.' Idaho still has much undeveloped and public land to site transmission lines."

Idahoans launched their own effort to reroute the line off farmland. But that level of involvement seemed quiet compared to Oregon's outcry.

Todd Lakey, an attorney and former Canyon County commissioner, is the spokesman for the group Protect Canyon County.

"Our message all along from the beginning has been this is a public utility and a public utility should be located on public land," Lakey said.

People were surprised by the line and felt they didn't have a say, he said. Idahoans, like Oregonians, understand the need for power but they also questioned the benefits the line would have for communities. "It's been more asking that question but recognizing the need to have power infrastructure and locate it appropriately," said Lakey.

McCarthy noticed the differing levels of involvement between the Oregon and Idaho groups, but he said Idahoans did make an impact as well. He speculated that the high level of activism in Oregon arose because the B2H is mainly in Oregon. Findley noted that at least one Idaho group opposed to the B2H got in touch with him to get advice on how to launch a successful campaign against Idaho Power.

Idaho Power responded to this opposition across the Idaho-Oregon border by starting a community advisory process. The utility organized groups from Eastern Oregon down to Southwest Idaho to come up with alternative routes. Last year, these teams, representing three geographic areas, developed and submitted 47 alternatives. From those, the groups, along with Idaho Power, picked three plans.

McCarthy said he values having such public involvement.

"It's been really painful at times, but it's always been good information. We're the engineers, but they're the people who really know the geography and the issues. We need their input so we don't go the wrong direction," he said.

Findley said he's happy with the alternate route through Malheur County, which now puts most of the line on public land. The proposed route also skirts private land in Canyon County. Lakey remains "cautiously optimistic" that it will stay that way.

"Idaho Power has done a good job of listening to the citizens and the political leaders," he said.

Residents in Baker City, though, aren't happy. The original transmission line would have gone over the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center and up through the valley. Now the line goes behind the center. Residents argue if the line gets built there, it will destroy a historic view--one that pioneers first saw coming through the valley.

The Boardman to Hemingway project isn't a done deal. Idaho Power must clear a number of hurdles before construction can begin. Oregon's Energy Facility Siting Council is expected to make a decision by mid-August. Meanwhile, Idaho Power has started the process again with the BLM. Ultimately, the company will have to make the case for why the B2H is needed.

Construction could begin in 2013 with the line active two years later.