November 27, 2008

Future power lines, pipelines will cut across wildlife refuge

Las Vegas Review-Journal

WASHINGTON -- Despite the pleas of nature advocates earlier this year, the Desert National Wildlife Refuge will be included in 1,622 miles of federal land crisscrossed by future power lines and pipelines.

The inclusion is part of a final report released Wednesday designating land in Nevada as part of an energy corridor network throughout the West.

Part of one corridor runs for about 25 miles along the southeastern edge of the 1.6 million acre Desert National Wildlife Refuge north of Las Vegas. Nature advocates at public hearings in Southern Nevada earlier this year urged federal officials to delete the corridor.

But it could not be done, according to a final environmental impact statement issued by the departments of Energy, Interior, Agriculture and Defense. The agencies collaborated after Congress set direction for them in a law enacted three years ago.

"It is not like it is going to
destroy the refuge..."
- John Hiatt,
Red Rock Audubon Society

The route intersecting the Nevada refuge "was retained because of there being no other viable option for relocating the corridor," the report states. It added that the agencies would seek approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that manages the haven for desert shrubs, bighorn sheep and the desert tortoise.

Release of the environmental report is one of the last steps before the energy corridor network can be finalized. It designates 6,112 miles of federal land in 11 states where future power lines and oil, gas and hydrogen pipelines could be funneled through the bureaucracy to build more energy infrastructure. Most corridors would be two-thirds of a mile wide.

John Hiatt, conservation chair for the Red Rock Audubon Society, said the energy corridor that runs through Clark County follows a tortuous path around the Sheep Mountains and then north and west of the Spring Mountains.

Hiatt said the route pleased nobody, including the federal officials who detoured it "150 extra miles" around the metropolitan area. In the process, they did not bypass the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.

"It is not like it is going to destroy the refuge, but it is a death by a thousand cuts and this is the first big cut," Hiatt said. "It definitely has a big impact. Essentially it removes all sense of naturalness from a fairly wide corridor which will be disturbed numerous times for fuel lines, gas lines, whatever they want to do. It is a bad situation with no simple answer how to solve the problem."

Jill Moran, a BLM spokeswoman, said the corridor designations do not automatically green-light development projects. Further environmental studies would be required for specific proposals before they can be permitted, although some studies may not need to be as extensive because of the groundwork being laid now.

The initiative also commits federal agencies to cooperate to reduce red tape for developers. Moran said the corridors will be formally designated through a record of decision that will be issued before the end of the year.

In Nevada, 34 corridors were identified. About 69 percent of the mileage already is designated for utility or transportation rights of way. BLM officials could not immediately identify which corridors would be newly designated in the state.

The Bush administration's work to designate energy corridors "has ruffled a lot of feathers in the environmental community out West," said John Tull, conservation director of the Nevada Wilderness Project.

The maps favor coal, oil and gas, and "look like another handout for traditional energy sources," Tull said. "It doesn't have the foresight for a renewable energy plan."

How the corridors might look different "is entirely the discussion that needs to go forward," he said. "I don't know what they would look like but that discussion has not taken place."

In the meantime, "I will be surprised if there will not be lawsuits real quick," Tull said. "That's pretty much the only course of action left."