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No Escape

Landscape Arch is an amazing thread of redrock in southern Utah’s Arches National Park. From a distance you might even think the 290-foot-long arch is floating over the desert, suspended by high wires. Today that’s just a mirage, but in a year the scene could be closer to reality due to plans for the erection of high-voltage power lines, as the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) sets about creating a maze of energy transmission corridors throughout the West.

Snaking through the 11-state region like cracks in ice, the thousands of miles of corridors are intended to fuel growing population centers in the Southwest and California. Standing in their way, though, is the national park system and federally endangered and threatened populations of desert tortoises, desert bighorn sheep, and California condors in and around Joshua Tree National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, and Mojave National Preserve. “Big power lines are used as perch sites for predators, like ravens, who could use them to better locate baby tortoises, which have soft shells and are easily eaten by ravens,” says Daniel Patterson, a desert ecologist with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. Patterson also envisions endangered condors dying in collisions with the power lines, and herds of desert bighorn sheep being displaced by the corridors, which also could funnel off-road vehicles into now-empty expanses.

Currently only the Lake Mead National Recreation Area (which straddles the Nevada–Arizona border) seems to have been ensnared by the web of corridors resulting from the 2005 Energy Policy Act. “They made quite an effort to avoid as much of the [Lake Mead] recreation area as they could, but evidently they couldn’t avoid the whole thing,” says Lee Dickinson, the Park Service’s special uses point person. “As of now there are no corridor designations through any other park.”

At least there don’t seem to be any other park incursions. Dickinson, Patterson, and others in the conservation community contend the resolution of the DOE’s map is so poor that it’s hard to say exactly where the corridors would run. The Wilderness Society wants the agency to provide more detailed map information so it can better trace the routes.

The corridors’ locations won’t be finalized until August 2007, and the lines could be redrawn between now and then. Still, with a right-of-way possibly 3,500 feet wide, these corridors for oil, natural gas, hydrogen, or electricity don’t really need to bisect a park to harm it. While trees might not have to be clear-cut in the desert Southwest for such a corridor, imagine standing atop Eagle Mountain in California’s Joshua Tree National Park and gazing down on a horizon-to-horizon stand of 120-foot-tall towers of power bumping up against the park’s southern border. 

Meanwhile, similar problems loom in the East, which will undergo its own energy corridor analysis before the decade is out. There is already a proposal to run a transmission line through the Park Service’s Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River area, which helps define the Pennsylvania–New York border. “The riverway soon is going to look like a porcupine if they can build towers every 800 feet that can go 85 to 135 feet in the air,” says Laura Loomis, senior director for government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association. —Kurt Repanshek

To learn more about energy corridors:
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 requires that a number of government agencies designate energy corridors on federal land. By August of 2007, the 11 western states will have areas set aside for “oil, gas, and hydrogen pipelines and electricity transmission and distribution facilities,” according to the act. To download a PDF of this act, click here. size: 28KB (Download Adobe Acrobat) To follow the project’s progress at the Programmatic Environmental Assessment for the western states, visit the West-wide Energy Corridor Programmatic EIS Information Center online.

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