Private dam planned on public land

  A private company's plans to dam a river on Wyoming's Bighorn National Forest has not found many fans - even among government agencies.

Sheridan-based Little Horn Energy Wyoming wants to build two reservoirs: a 140-acre impoundment on the Dry Fork of the Little Bighorn River, and a 73-acre pond on a ridge about 2,400 feet above the river. The scheme would use cheap power in the middle of the night and on weekends to pump water from the first reservoir to the upper pond. Then, during business hours, when high electricity demand drives prices up, the upper reservoir would release water through turbines to produce electricity for sale. The operation would provide energy when it is needed most, though overall, it is designed to use more electricity than it produces while still making a profit.

Says Liz Howell of the Wyoming Outdoor Council, "We're going to kill it. It's such a huge sacrifice for what they'd get - only to benefit private moneymakers."

Howell and other critics, including the Forest Service, say a dam would sacrifice a roadless area where mossy canyon walls and a clear stream provide habitat for Canada lynx, endangered peregrine falcons and, possibly, Yellowstone cutthroat trout. The Crow Tribe, 15 miles downstream, worries that the reservoir will leave it with reduced flows and muddy irrigation water.

The Environmental Protection Agency says it's trying to figure out whether the project will increase pollution from coal-fired generators, since it would consume electricity faster than it produces it. Little Horn Energy, which refused interviews, has not provided the EPA much information, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that must grant the project's license, has been slow in asking for it.

EPA's Wes Wilson says FERC has "a history of ignoring other agencies." Despite uncertainty about the company, FERC is paying an estimated $500,000 for an environmental impact statement, due in the spring.

*Gabriel Ross

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