So, are the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management planning to bring a power line or natural gas pipeline through your favorite national park in the name of energy independence?
That's a good question, one that actually has been simmering for some time but just this week came to the forefront thanks to Janet Wilson's L.A. Times story about an energy bill Congress passed last year with little fanfare.
The story is revealing much concern in the Southwest, where some folks are worried newly envisioned energy corridors stretching from Montana, Idaho and Wyoming en route to Arizona, Nevada and California will run roughshod over public, and possibly private, lands.
Right now it's hard to say what the impact will be on national parks. But there are fears these transmission lines could cut across Canyonlands National Park, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and the Mojave National Preserve. Too, there are fears they could pass through national forests, wilderness areas, and national wildlife refuges.
Do we need a new network of energy transmission corridors in the West? That's a good question. An argument could be made that while there perhaps is indeed a need for better transmission of oil, natural gas and electricity, this country could do itself a lot of good with a more demanding and better thought-out energy plan.
For instance, the government could put some teeth into requirements that automakers significantly increase the mileage their vehicles get on a gallon of gas. Some progress is being made independently, but I think things would move a whole lot faster with a little more prodding. Others share that opinion. Just this week some environmental groups sued the administration, saying new mileage guidelines for SUVs and pickup trucks don't go far enough.
Also, instead of drilling for scant oil reserves thought to exist in the West and Alaska, wouldn't it be wiser to really spend some R&D dollars and come up with cleaner, more reliable, and longer lasting energy sources, such as hydrogen fuel cells, methane and bio fuels?
But back to this story about new transmission corridors. The study now being conducted by the DOE, BLM and Forest Service was dictated by the 2005 Energy Policy Act. That legislation directed federal agencies to adopt major energy corridors across 11 Western states by August of 2007. You can learn more about the project's finer points here.
That's a pretty short time-frame for such an ambitious project, but those in Congress who pushed this legislation through provided some shortcuts. For instance, I've been told that the legislation essentially gives the federal government the power of eminent domain for the purpose of stringing power lines across private lands.
"The secretary of the Interior now has eminent domain authority and can override state decisions," The Wilderness Society's Dave Alberswerth, a senior policy adviser, told me.
That will be popular, don't you think? Imagine a conga line of 160-foot-tall pylons stretching to the horizon along a mile-wide corridor through your favorite forest, wildlife refuge or park.
And the legislation calls for a single environmental review of all the proposed corridors, rather than one review for each corridor. That should help fast-track this baby.
Oh yeah, apparently there's also the possibility that this mission to blaze new corridors could take existing routes used by small, rural electric cooperatives and transform them into major energy transmission routes.
Many suggestions for where these new corridors might run are coming directly from the energy industry, which was the major impetus for the Energy Policy Act. Energy companies have to love this legislation, as it would essentially give them carte blanche to string transmission lines across public lands, a much cheaper endeavor than crossing private property.
What's unknown so far is exactly how, and even whether, national parks will be affected. Initially, energy companies proposed routes through such places as Joshua Tree, Death Valley, and Lassen Volcanic national parks, as well as Canyonlands.
In southern Utah, the tiny Garkane Energy co-op of Loa has suggested that a route run from Tropic, just east of Bryce Canyon National Park, through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, to the tiny enclave of Duck Creek, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
According to Lee Dickinson, who oversees the National Park Service's special uses division, Lassen, Death Valley and Joshua Tree supposedly have been withdrawn from the drawing table, at least temporarily, but Canyonlands and Lake Mead NRA, as well as the Mojave National Preserve, remain in the crosshairs.
We're not talking small corridors, either. In some cases they could be five miles wide.
And don't think this isn't a concern to you if you live east of the Rocky Mountains. A similar study applying to the rest of the continental U.S. is due by 2009. I can't wait to see the routes proposed across the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, New York's Adirondack Range and possibly Great Smoky Mountains National Park or Shenandoah.
Do we need better energy transmission? Most likely, yes. Look at the mess caused last summer when hurricanes temporarily shut down natural gas flows coming from the Gulf of Mexico.
But these things shouldn't be rushed through without strong judgment and careful analysis when it comes to our national parks, forests and wildlife refuges.