Friday, May 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Energy corridors may cut a swath through wild areas

Seattle Times staff reporter

On the map

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The McNary Wildlife Refuge is a system of sloughs and mudflats near where the Columbia and Snake rivers meet in southeastern Washington. It's home to bald eagles, endangered peregrine falcons and thousands of migrating shorebirds.

Someday, it also may be next door to a new string of electricity towers or underground pipelines delivering more energy to the West.

Next month, the federal government will unveil a proposal to dedicate thousands of miles of federal land in the West as a network of utility corridors, where energy companies in the future could locate new transmission towers or pipelines for oil, gas and hydrogen.

Most will be in places already home to gas lines or electricity lines.

But some may be three-quarters of a mile wide, cutting across undisturbed terrain or through national parks, scenic areas or wildlife-rich lands. An early draft suggests one might run alongside the McNary refuge.

Some government officials, environmentalists and tribal leaders fear the proposal could ultimately disrupt sensitive landscapes and expose some of the West's most distinctive places to pipeline explosions or fuel spills.

"Alarm bells are ringing on some of these corridors," said Ivan Maluski, conservation coordinator for the Sierra Club in Oregon.

Frustrated by the lengthy process the energy industry faces when it wants to run pipes and power lines, Congress last year gave the Department of Energy and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) until August 2007 to set aside energy corridors on federal land in 11 Western states.

The idea was to consolidate the permitting for using federal land and speed up efforts to improve power delivery. Establishing a corridor is similar to zoning; construction will still go through additional environmental review, said Scott Powers, who heads up the project for the BLM. In some places, construction may be decades away, or never occur at all.

The agencies have held public meetings and issued several reports. But they have declined to release working maps of the proposals until next month.

A map obtained by The Seattle Times appears to suggest that most major corridors in Washington would run along existing highways, such as Highway 2 across Stevens Pass, near where utility lines already cross the Cascades. Another corridor may run near an existing pipeline that borders the McNary refuge.

But it's not clear how much wider those corridors could become, and based on that map, it appears one would run through critical spotted-owl habitat in Oregon's Mount Hood National Forest.

Federal officials stressed that the map is only a draft.

Other parts of the West face greater potential for conflict.

Energy companies have pushed for corridors in California across Death Valley, Joshua Tree and Lassen Volcanic national parks as well as the Mojave National Preserve.

Other corridors have been considered for Canyonlands National Park in Utah and Lake Mead National Recreation Area near Las Vegas.

"We're trying to stay very close to this project, but the internal maps we've seen have not been anywhere near as detailed as we'd like," said Dave Reynolds, regional director for natural resources with the National Park Service in Oakland, Calif.

Powers said his group is trying to be environmentally sensitive and, "if at all possible," will avoid siting corridors near national parks, refuges, wilderness areas and wild and scenic rivers. But he said that might not always be possible.

"We're trying to do the best job we can do given the time constraints we have at screening these locations," he said.

The energy industry says it's encouraged by government's willingness to help it keep up with demand for more energy.

But others are troubled by the scale and pace.

"That is the stupidest thing I've ever heard," said Howard Wilshire, a retired U.S. Geological Survey scientist. He said his studies, and others, on the effects of roads, power lines and development across the Mojave Desert found that endangered animals such as the desert tortoise were killed during construction.

Dave Alberswerth of The Wilderness Society, who was a BLM official in the Clinton administration, said he worries that small existing corridors on sensitive lands could be transformed into wide pathways.

And utility projects also can fragment habitat or drive animals into new habitat where they are killed by predators, said Gary Sprague, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist.

"From a wildlife perspective, they can be a big deal," Sprague said. "They can disrupt wildlife migrations."

Sprague and others around the West also worry that the states may not have enough oversight over how pipelines or power lines affect the environment because the secretary of energy can overrule some state decisions on construction projects in the corridors.

"As a nonpracticing lawyer, that pretty much says to me that [Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman] can do whatever he wants to," said Jim Luce, chairman of the Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, which ordinarily governs where utility lines go in Washington.

Regardless, some state officials, the National Park Service and even some environmentalists said federal project leaders appear to be trying to accommodate concerns.

When the maps of the proposed corridors are released, now scheduled for June 9, the public can comment before a draft of the entire proposal is released in the fall.

"They're still in the early stages of all of this," said Joan Jewett, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or"> Information from the Los Angeles Times was included in this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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