Power lines planned from plains to Pacific, but not without resistance

BOISE, Idaho -- Idaho Power Co. and Rocky Mountain Power, who want to snake a $7 billion network of 190-foot transmission towers across the West, face a tangled matrix of state and local barriers as challenging as the hardships faced by the pioneers who traveled much the same route on the Oregon Trail a century and a half ago.

The 1,500-mile route between Boardman, Ore., and Windstar station in Wyoming would connect power plants to energy users for decades to come.

"These are projects everybody needs and nobody wants," said Lisa Grow, Idaho Power's vice president for transmission.

The opposition - which rose to a fever pitch in places like Parma and Kuna and sparked a regional response along Idaho's southern border - has been a wake-up call for Idaho Power, which has not built a major transmission line in more than 20 years.

"It was impressive," Grow said. "We don't want to steamroll these people and leave a legacy of bad feelings."

The companies have the power to condemn private property to build the line, but to do that, they have to get approval from each of the counties in Idaho and from the states of Wyoming and Oregon.

If they can't get the local OKs, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can step in and force the issue - but along a route of its choosing. That's an alternative that all sides hope to avoid.

Looming behind the scenes is one of the country's most powerful laws. Where the transmission lines are built could determine whether to list the greater sage grouse as an endangered species - which would have wide economic impacts across the region.

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