TransWest Express & Gateway South transmission lines: multi-state missed opportunities

Transmission lines can be important for renewable energy, but they can have significant negative impacts on the lands they traverse.

Alex Daue, The Wilderness Society

Wildlands and sage-grouse were unnecessarily sacrificed, but important mitigation commitments will help compensate.

Last week the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released final decisions for the TransWest Express and Gateway South transmission lines, giving the green light to a new 725-mile line stretching from southern Wyoming to southern Nevada (TransWest Express) and a new 400-mile line from southern Wyoming to central Utah (Gateway South).

TransWest Express is expected to help deliver clean wind energy from rural Wyoming to the Las Vegas area, California, and Arizona, and Gateway South will increase transmission capacity between Wyoming and Utah.

High-conflict routes ignore availability of better alternatives 

After evaluating several possible routes for TransWest Express, BLM ultimately selected one that unnecessarily bisects some of northwest Colorado’s wildest public lands and important sage-grouse habitat, as well as wilderness-quality lands in eastern Nevada.

For Gateway South, BLM selected the same high-conflict route in northwest Colorado; in Utah, Gateway South’s route will also cut across wilderness-quality lands (Gateway South ends in central Utah, so it will not impact Nevada).

There was a win-win solution at the ready for these projects. BLM considered routes that would have followed highways and designated utility corridors with existing transmission lines, avoiding and minimizing impacts to lands with wilderness characteristics and habitat for sage-grouse and other wildlife. Unfortunately, the agency instead approved high-conflict routes across wild, undeveloped country.

Compensatory mitigation will offset some, but not all, impacts

Despite this major missed opportunity on the routes for TransWest Express and Gateway South, there is a silver lining: BLM’s final approvals include notable commitments for compensatory mitigation, which means that BLM will require that impacts to resources like wildlands and wildlife habitat are offset by protecting or restoring similar resources elsewhere in the region.

For example, BLM is requiring that damage to some lands with wilderness characteristics be offset by either 1) purchasing and protectively managing private land inholdings from willing sellers in existing Wilderness Areas and Wilderness Study Areas; or 2) completing restoration projects inside existing Wilderness Areas and Wilderness Study Areas. 

While BLM deserves recognition for beginning to implement its own guidelines for addressing the effects of energy development on our public lands, the agency still has work to do to fully offset these important impacts.

For example:

BLM must require mitigation for impacts to all wilderness-quality lands.

The agency is not requiring offsets for impacts to lands with wilderness characteristics from Gateway South in Utah, because BLM had decided through a previous land use planning process that it would not prioritize protective management of those lands. But that decision does not cancel out the agency’s responsibility to require mitigation for harm to the resource. 

BLM should have provided a wider range of opportunities for preservation of lands.

There are very few private land inholdings in Wilderness Areas and WSAs in northwest Colorado, so opportunities to use acquisition to compensate for lost wilderness characteristics are limited. But BLM has the authority to protect lands through administrative decisions or use of conservation right of ways or easements on public lands, and this is something that The Wilderness Society will continue to advocate for in other decisions going forward.

Offsets through compensatory mitigation are important—but should be a last resort

Offsetting impacts through compensatory mitigation actions, like those in the TransWest Express and Gateway South final approvals, is a critical aspect of balancing conservation with development on our public lands. But this should only be pursued as a last resort.

Guidance from the Department of the Interior and BLM provides that compensatory mitigation should be used only when impacts cannot be avoided through project location or minimized through project design. Unfortunately, BLM got it backwards for these projects, opting to compensate for impacts, rather than avoiding them in the first place.

We know BLM can do better in the future, and hope to see the agency limit damage to our public lands by selecting low-conflict alternative routes and sites, particularly for major development projects like TransWest Express and Gateway South. As BLM rolls out new mitigation guidance in near future, we look forward to seeing the agency improve its practices for avoiding, minimizing, and offsetting impacts from development.

Until then, while we do recognize BLM’s important commitments to offset some impacts with mitigation, we’re sorry to see wildlands in northwest Colorado, Utah, and eastern Nevada become needless casualties of energy development on our public lands.