National Forest Service recommends reroute for proposed Montana transmission upgrade

The National Forest Service (NFS) is recommending that a proposed project to rebuild and upgrade an existing 69-kV transmission line in south-central Montana as a 161-kV facility include moving a portion of the line’s right-of-way to reduce the project’s visual impact on adjacent recreational residence tracts.

The proposal is contained in the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) on the proposed Jack Rabbit to Big Sky Meadow Village upgrade, which the NFS issued Oct. 19 as the lead federal agency under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). 

The upgraded line, to be constructed by NorthWestern Energy (NYSE:NWE), would connect the existing Jack Rabbit substation located near Four Corners, Mont., west of Bozeman, to a new substation near Big Sky Meadow Village in Big Sky, Mont.

Under the NFS’s preferred alternative, Alternative 3, the line would follow a significant portion of existing right-of-way (ROW), though the ROW would have to be widened to accommodate taller structures, NFS project lead Amy Waring told TransmissionHub Nov. 20.

According to the DEIS, “the preferred alternative was developed to reduce visual impacts to the recreation residence tracts, and to mitigate the potential effects to the historical character of the recreation residence tracts.”

Alternative 3 and Alternative 4 both propose realigning minor portions of the ROW to move the new line away from two recreation residence tracts, the Cave Creek and the Cascade Creek tracts. Without the minor rerouting, the taller rebuilt line would affect the tracts’ viewscapes.

The key issues identified during the DEIS scoping period included scenery impacts, historic and archaeological resources, transportation and traffic, and access to NFS lands, according to the DEIS.

“Visual [impacts] and traffic transportation is really what’s driving our alternatives,” Waring said.

Alternative 2 would rebuild the line within the existing ROW, while Alternative 1 is the “no-action” alternative.

Public comment generally positive

“We had a public meeting last week in Big Sky, and the comments were generally really favorable, especially from the Cascade Creek recreation residence owners,” Waring said.

“A couple of people recommended putting the [entire] line on forest service land, but that’s outside our scope. We can only control what happens on the Forest [Service’s land].” Such comments are referred to NorthWestern Energy for its consideration and possible action.

“What we have control over is what’s being routed on the 16 miles of national forest, not the private lands on either side,” Waring said. 

The remaining 21 miles of the proposed project and associated substations are outside of NFS jurisdiction, will not be part of this DEIS evaluation, and are subject to Gallatin County, Mont., permitting requirements, according to the DEIS.

“That’s one of the fastest-growing areas in our service territory,” a Northwestern Energy spokesperson told TransmissionHub Nov. 20. “There’s a ski resort, vacation homes, and that sort of thing. It’s been a high-demand area and we’re just trying to serve it a little better.”

The upgrade of the existing 69-kV facility would eliminate adequacy and reliability problems associated with the current electric transmission system, the NFS said. The proposed project would meet the anticipated future energy demands and provide for anticipated growth, which would better comply with industry standards and customer needs, according to the DEIS.

“We’re hoping to get started on that portion of the project that goes across forest service land next year, so time is of the essence for us,” the spokesperson said.

Construction of the project portion on NFS lands is expected to take approximately two years. Construction would be scheduled to begin in 2013 with the system coming on line at the 161-kV level during the fall of 2014. Northwestern Energy estimates the project will cost $35m.

The public comment period for the DEIS ends Dec. 3, 45 days after the document was published in the federal register.