By Emily Stifler and Joseph T. O’Connor Explorebigsky.com Editors
BOZEMAN – Progress has slowed on the Gallatin Canyon transmission line upgrade due to an injunction filed by a private landowner halting the project on National Forest land.
NorthWestern Energy last fall started construction on the new 161-kilovolt transmission line connecting Four Corners and Big Sky. This summer the utility has continued the work, mostly on private land where it has negotiated easements with landowners, and on public land alongside the road, where the Montana Department of Transportation has a right of way.
Of the project’s 37 total miles, 16 are on National Forest land.
The landowner, Linda Keith, filed an administrative appeal through her lawyers to the U.S. Forest Service’s Environmental Impact Statement on May 13, the final day possible, and sought an injunction on May 20.
The regional Forest Service office, meanwhile, dismissed the appeal on May 24, because the individual hadn’t submitted a written comment on the EIS during the comment period, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act process.
According to U.S. District Court documents filed in the case, the Forest Service stipulated it won’t provide a special-use permit to proceed with construction on its land until the case is resolved.
“We’ve been working on an EIS for over a year with the goal of issuing NorthWestern Energy a master special-use permit to upgrade their transmission line,” said Gallatin National Forest spokesman Patrick Lair. “We selected an alternative that we felt was an actual improvement on the existing line, in that it eliminates several river crossings and eliminates the line from some residential cabins.”
“Our hope is that the case will be dismissed in a number of weeks, but if it does go to litigation it could take up to a year,” Lair said. “It’s all in the hands of the legal system at this point.”
NorthWestern Energy spokesman Butch Larcombe said this type of occurrence is not unusual.
“I guess we were hoping they wouldn’t have to reach this stage with anybody,” Larcombe said. “We’ve been trying to communicate with landowners clearly about what the plan was, but it’s certainly somebody’s right to challenge the Forest Service decision, so we respect that.”
The path forward is unclear.
“It would depend on what [the landowner is] seeking,” Larcombe said. “We don’t have any real flexibility on the route. It’s an existing route, and we’ve done a lot of planning with the Forest Service on it. It’s not like we’re cutting a new path through the forest.”
The first phase of the upgrade, running 12.2 miles between the Jack Rabbit Substation and Spanish Creek, was completed last summer.
The contractor, Mountain Power, has been working elsewhere in the canyon since May, clearing trees to prepare for line construction.
“We’re hopeful to maybe have this resolved at some point this summer, so we have time to do line construction on the first chunk [of]Forest Service land, but it’s kind of out of our hands,” Larcombe said.
The Gallatin Valley and Big Sky areas are among the fastest growing in NorthWestern Energy’s service territory; usage in Big Sky exceeds capacity of the existing 69kV transmission line about 40 percent of the time, according to Claudia Rapkoch, another spokesperson for the utility.
The upgrade is part of a plan to increase capacity and reliability for Big Sky that already included the 2010 construction of a new substation in the Meadow Village. The line from Ennis to Big Sky is rated at 161kV but energized at only 69kV, and the utility plans to eventually install equipment to increase its capacity, as well.
“We are very convinced that the Big Sky area needs this increased level of service and want to pursue that to the best of our ability,” Larcombe said.
USFS will file its opening brief on July 1. Keith and her attorneys will respond on July 31, and the USFS final brief is due Aug. 13.
“It’s anybody’s guess as to how the court will rule on that,” said an attorney involved in Keith v. USFS, who wished to remain anonymous since the case is still pending.