A Swift SWIP hike


A typical thru-hiker might walk 15-20 miles a day to finish a long trail. Adam Bradley managed 40 a day when he set the record for the 2,700-mile Pacific Crest Trail in 2009; so his latest escapade -- averaging 31 miles a day for 16 days -- was probably a breeze.

The 501-mile trek began in southern Idaho (near Twin Falls) on Earth Day and ended last Monday just north of Las Vegas, tracing the path of the 500 kilovolt Southwest Intertie Project (SWIP) Transmission Line. The project is expected to break ground this summer on the $550 million segment from Las Vegas to Ely (in central Nevada), to be completed in 2012. The rest — from Ely up to Idaho — will be built from 2011-2013.

The line has been hailed as the "backbone" of Nevada's emerging clean energy economy because it would deliver power from farflung renewable resources  in areas without transmission to population centers. SWIP was originally conceived as a way to supply the Southwest with coal-fired power from Idaho, but those projects have since fallen through, and Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) has encouraged developers to start clean energy projects in reach of SWIP. Indeed, NV Energy — one of the main utilities that will be using SWIP — plans to connect several geothermal and solar projects to the completed transmission line.

But the Nevada Wilderness Project (NWP) worries that all this development could impact wildlife habitat: Bradley's hike is a quirky way for the organization to publicize the clean energy vs. conservation debate.

According to NWP, (which sponsored Bradley's trip),

(the trek passed) through high quality sage grouse habitat, large mammal travel corridors, canyons, dirt roads, ranches, neighboring towns, and areas that will be changed by the construction of the line. (Bradley) likely will be the last person to see the path of the line before construction begins this summer.

The group is cautiously optimistic about SWIP's impacts on wildlife such as sage grouse. The birds' population has dropped 90 percent over the last 100 years and US Fish and Wildlife is monitoring it for possible federal protection. SWIP's route will not cut through sage grouse courtship zones, and the transmission towers were designed to discourage raptors — sage grouse predators — from perching.

Still, the line will pass close to several wilderness study areas (Bluebell, South Pequop) and cross Nevada's Winecup Ranch — 250,000 acres of prime sage grouse habitat. The ranch is also where SWIP will intersect the proposed Ruby Pipeline, which would transport natural gas from Wyoming to Oregon. NWP is worried about the cumulative impacts of these projects — aside from the disturbance caused by construction, the gas line will be accompanied by a maintenance road that would open up the remote ranch to more visitors and cars.

NWP wants to work with Great Basin Transmission (the developer of SWIP) to mitigate the wildlife effects. For instance, in exchange for keeping the route through Winecup Ranch, NWP would like future solar and wind projects to be built on poor habitat with minimal effects on wildlife. Bradley, then, is great for generating media coverage. Aside from taking his own photos and videos (later posted on the web) along the way, he was shadowed by filmmakers who hope to create a short documentary of his trip. Staff members from NWP followed a similar route by car, going on sidetrips during the day and meeting with Bradley every night to blog his updates.

Those meetings also supplied Bradley with fresh water. As for food, Bradley told NWP that he prefers light, calorie-rich rations like dehydrated refried pinto beans:

I add these bean flakes to water and carry it in a special container while walking for about 30 minutes...You can also add extra virgin olive oil or Celtic sea salt...Upon reaching camp, I stir in crushed corn tortilla chips and slivers of sharp cheddar. Bam! You have cold beans.