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for people who care about the West

An octopus wants to eat the West


What’s 3,500 feet wide, 6,055 miles long and 2.9 million acres big? That’s wider than Hoover Dam, bigger than Yellowstone National Park and almost three times as long as the Mississippi River. This behemoth goes by the name of the West-Wide Energy Corridor, and if you live in the West it could soon devour a landscape near you.

This huge new system of energy corridors was mandated by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. You remember 2005: That was when newly re-elected President Bush claimed a “mandate” and Congress was controlled by Republicans. The Energy Policy Act was a grab bag of tax breaks and incentives to various sectors of the energy industry that failed to raise vehicle mileage standards or take any other meaningful steps to reduce energy demand. Section 368 of the law directed the Secretaries of the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy and Interior to designate corridors on federal land in 11 Western states for oil, gas and hydrogen pipelines and electrical power lines. These agencies have now released the federal West-wide Energy Corridor Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, a three-volume document totaling well over 1,000 pages.

If its bureaucratic verbiage numbs the brain, its system maps should make anyone sit up and take notice. Check them out at http://corridoreis.anl.gov//eis/dmap/index.cfm They show a network of cracks spreading across the West, from Puget Sound to El Paso, and from San Diego to the Little Bighorn. On these maps, our beloved West looks like a shattered and poorly mended dinner plate. And that is an entirely accurate image.

These new energy corridors -- averaging two-thirds of a mile wide -- will fracture a landscape that is already a maze of hairline cracks -- the lines made by highways, railroads and the current, comparatively delicate energy rights-of-way. These existing corridors have been enough to severely fragment habitat in the West, interfering with the movements of pronghorn, elk and bison, denying undisturbed wild areas to wolves and grizzly bears, and weakening the ecological health of deserts, grasslands and forests.

The West-Wide Energy Corridor, if enacted, would be a death sentence for many wildlife populations. The corridors it outllnes would cross national wildlife refuges, national recreation areas, national monuments and national parks. One tentacle would split the Big Horn Basin of Wyoming; another would run the length of California’s Owens Valley between Sequoia and Death Valley national parks; another would cut from Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado to Bandelier National Monument near Santa Fe.

You have to wonder why the government didn’t simply use the existing system of energy corridors and rights of way. And here is the government’s answer: ”This option was considered but eliminated for a number of reasons. Many of the existing energy corridors and utility rights-of-way … are sized for relatively small transport systems (both in terms of capacity and distance) and could neither support added systems nor be expanded to accommodate additional energy transport facilities. These limitations make them too fragmentary or localized to serve the need for long-distance energy transport across the West.”

Well, many readers may think, fair enough. We do have to upgrade our energy delivery systems, don’t we? Isn’t this an example of the government being prudent and planning for the future?

Arising out of the political context of 2005, the Energy Policy Act did not entertain the possibility that energy use could actually be reduced through conservation, and it gave little consideration to local power generation by wind farms or solar arrays, for example, that would not require massive, long-distance energy corridors. In other words, the West-Wide Energy Corridor was never a prudent attempt to plan for the future: it simply takes a failed energy distribution model and makes it bigger.

Then there’s the contentious issue of property rights. On the maps, the lines representing the corridors are frequently interrupted, only to pick up again after a gap. Those gaps are private land; the map shows only the rights of way proposed for federal land. Obviously, those gaps must be filled in, and if you happen to be a landowner in the way, watch out!

The West-Wide Energy Corridor analysis is open for public comment until Feb. 14, and so far, what appears to be a land grab has received little media attention. If you value the integrity of our public lands and the sanctity of private property, you owe it to yourself to take a look at http://corridoreis.anl.gov/eis/dmap/index.cfm

To me, it looks like an octopus trying to devour the West.

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a biologist and writer in Ashland, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].