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Some fear power lines coming to national parks
Preservationists worry that protected areas will be taken over by massive utility poles

By Kimberly Hefling
Associated Press Writer

GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Apple trees have been planted, wood fences restored and power lines buried in recent years to transform the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg to the way it looked when Union and Confederate forces clashed on farmers’ fields in 1863.

But preservationists now worry that the national military park in Pennsylvania’s picturesque fruit belt soon may be in the shadow of high-powered transmission lines.

It is not just Gettysburg that worries them as a result of a 2005 law that gave federal regulators new authority over where power lines are built.

They fear the law could place hundreds of national and state parks and other protected sites in the Northeast and Southwest in or near the path of massive power lines.

“They’re not little modest poles that you wouldn’t notice,” said Joy Oakes, senior regional director at the National Parks Conservation Association.

The law was enacted in response to power companies’ complaints that local and state authorities, which historically have decided where power lines go, were reluctant to approve them — often because of residents’ opposition.

The stalemate, according to the companies, contributed to blackouts such as the one in 2003 that swept from Ohio to New York City.

Silencing opposition

Using the law, the Energy Department this year proposed making two large swaths of land in the Northeast and Southwest “national interest” corridors.

If the corridors are approved by Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, federal regulators can order power lines built in them, regardless of state and local opposition.

The Wilderness Society estimates that millions of acres of wildlife refuges, cemeteries, national seashores, protected wilderness, national parks and other types of protected land are within the proposed corridors.

Environmental activists contend the corridors were drawn broadly to make it difficult to tell where the power lines would go.

They say the department should have done a thorough environmental analysis and declared protected areas off limits before proposing them.

The department is proposing an “overbroad solution” that “bypasses important legal and procedural safeguards,” said Nada Culver, the Wilderness Society’s senior counsel.

If a protected area is in the planned path of a power line, she said, the agency with jurisdiction could be forced or pressured into allowing the line to be constructed. But there is no guarantee a utility company could put lines in such an area.

The Energy Department says it would require a full environmental and cultural review before federal regulators could order a line built and alternatives would have to be considered.

Just because a power company seeks permission from federal regulators, that “doesn’t mean they automatically get what they want,” said Barbara Connors, a spokeswoman for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That agency would have the final say about where lines could run in the corridors.

Power companies contend the large corridors would give them more flexibility to avoid protected areas. They would have to work with state regulators for a year before going to federal regulators as a last resort.

“We do have to build infrastructure through areas and at some point people do have to choose if they want reliable, affordable electricity, but you also have to balance all of those issues, protected sites being one of them,” said Ed Legge, a spokesman for Edison Electric Institute, the association of U.S. shareholder-owned electric utilities.

Opposition to the proposed corridors has been particularly strong in Virginia and New York.

Utility companies have proposed building lines in the scenic Piedmont area of Virginia and New York’s Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River Park.

Opponents say the law could make it easier for the utility companies to get their way eventually.

On the Net:

Gettysburg National Military Park: www.nps.gov/gett

Gettysburg Foundation: www.gettysburgfoundation.org

Edison Electric Institute: www.eei.org

Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River: www.nps.gov/upde

Civil War Preservation Trust: www.civilwar.org

National Parks Conservation Association: www.npca.org

National Park Service: www.nps.gov

National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors:
nietc.anl.gov

Wilderness Society: www.wilderness.org

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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