Officials: Error led to routing planned transmission line through national monument
Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter. I'm Amy Alonzo, the environment reporter for The Indy.
Last week, the York Fire made headlines as it burned through California’s Mojave National Preserve and into Nevada, eventually reaching Avi Kwa Ame, the state’s newest national monument. As of Tuesday, the fire had burned more than 93,000 acres, scorching iconic Joshua trees and ripping through the fragile landscape.
Avi Kwa Ame isn’t the only Southern Nevada national monument under threat.
A proposed energy transmission line could run through Tule Fossil Springs National Monument — all due to a potential mapping error, as I write about below.
Nevada’s national monuments, parks and recreation areas offer diverse landscapes and cultural resources well worth exploring. The National Park Service waives entrance fees several times per year, so mark your calendar — the next chance to visit a national park or monument for free is Sept. 23, National Public Lands Day.
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The potential destruction of ice age fossils in a Southern Nevada national monument by a proposed energy transmission line is due to a decade-old mapping error, according to federal employees, but at least one government accountability group isn’t buying it.
NV Energy’s Greenlink West is a proposed 472-mile-long transmission line connecting Reno to Las Vegas for renewable energy development in Clark, Esmeralda, Lyon, Mineral, Nye and Storey counties. A companion transmission line, Greenlink North, is proposed for 232 miles through White Pine, Eureka, Lander, Churchill and Lyon counties. Combined, the projects are forecast to “unlock” up to eight gigawatts of renewable energy, according to the federal government.
The proposed siting of the long-distance lines has caused a stir, as they would run along Highway 50, the “Loneliest Road in America,” be visible from Death Valley National Park and cut through a corner of Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument (TUSK.)
TUSK, the first national monument specifically dedicated to the preservation and scientific study of ice age fossils, parallels Highway 95 from the Nellis Air Force test and training range to North Las Vegas. Divided into northern and southern sections, the park is split horizontally by Moccasin Road.
Designated in 2014, the monument’s southeastern boundary butts up against a community of single-story homes built a decade prior to TUSK’s establishment.
When surveyors were mapping the monument, they did not leave a Congressionally designated 400-foot boundary along the park’s edge for a transmission corridor, according to Greg Helseth, renewable energy branch chief at the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Nevada office.
"If they had also looked at the legislation, they would have seen there was a certain distance provided for transmission,” he said.
With the monument’s boundary abutting the residences, NV Energy proposed that a small portion of Greenlink West run through a corner of the monument in an area where ground-penetrating radar has shown the likelihood of vertebrate skeletal elements.
“It appears this was all a mapmaking error,” Brian Buttazoni, planning and environmental specialist with the Bureau of Land Management, said at a July 13 public meeting in Reno about the Greenlink project. “It appears what they intended … is to put the right of way in the monument. But that’s not what happened, it’s outside the monument. There was an error in the mapping, and the error placed the utility corridor across private property.”
Routing the transmission line around the monument would increase the length of the project and its cost exponentially. It would likely mean sending it south, then toward Pahrump, adding 70 miles and about $70 million to the cost of the project, according to the BLM.
But Public Employees of Environmental Responsibility (PEER), one of the first organizations to publicly raise the alarm about the project’s effect on the monument, questions the need to direct the transmission line through the park.
“We are not aware of a mapping error, and we are not aware of any official attempt to correct the supposed error,” said Jeff Ruch, PEER Pacific director and an attorney. “The motivation for crossing the monument is for NV’s (NV Energy) benefit, not for any reason that geography demands. Arguably, eminent domain could be used. But people don’t want to do that. It’s easier from the point of view of some, particularly NV (Energy), to go through the monument.”
‘Is it an error or not?’
Used by humans for at least the last 12,000 years, the area within Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument is culturally and religiously important to the Southern Paiute people. The monument also preserves fossils from species including the Columbian mammoth, sabertooth cat, American lion, dire wolf, giant ground sloths, and ancient camels and horses — hence its informal name TUSK.
Invertebrates, plant microfossils and pollen are also found in the park, and the fossil beds “contain some of the richest Ice Age faunas in the Southwest,” according to the National Park Service (NPS).
When legislation for the monument was drafted as part of a 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress authorized a 400-foot-wide right-of-way for a renewable energy transmission line “on receipt of a complete application from a qualified electric utility.”
The legislation also stated that “As soon as practicable after the date of enactment of this section, the Secretary shall prepare an official map and legal description of the boundaries of the Monument.”
In a statement, NV Energy said, “It is worth noting that when the national monument was created in 2014, the already existing utility corridor was recognized with it at the same time.”
But according to Helseth, errors were made when the monument was surveyed. Instead of setting the monument’s boundaries back, they were drawn next to Moccasin Road, which already had houses abutting its south side, he said at the same Reno BLM meeting Buttazoni spoke at.
NV Energy’s proposed Greenlink transmission line would route 11 power-transmitting monopoles inside the monument’s border by about 5 feet with an additional 50-foot right-of-way. In addition to the nearby houses, the 525-kilovolt transmission line must be placed a certain distance away from previously existing transmission lines.
“We’re at the minimum distance away from the other transmission lines for electric safety,” Helseth told The Indy in a follow-up interview. “That’s why we’re on that side and the hangers are pointing toward TUSK so we can keep the lines away from the other power lines.”
Installation of the monopoles is likely to impact paleontological resources, according to the NPS. And construction of up to 180-foot-tall towers near the intersection of North Durango Drive and Moccasin Road — an area that features an interpretive kiosk, a trailhead and parking— could sully what is considered the most scenic entrance to the national monument, critics say.
In a June 2022 letter to the state director of the BLM, the park service acknowledged that the Greenlink project “may impact the nationally recognized resources and values” of the Tule Springs monument as well as other federally designated protected wilderness including Death Valley National Park, the California National Historic Trail and the Pony Express National Historic Trail.
Derek Carter, superintendent of TUSK, said park officials started questioning if there was an error in the mapping of the park boundary early in the planning stages for Greenlink.
“To this day, I don’t know,” he said. “Is it an error or not?”
What’s next for Greenlink
NV Energy announced plans for the $2 billion Greenlink project in 2020, touting the transmission expansion as a way to address needed capacity in rapidly growing Northern Nevada and to comply with higher renewable energy mandates.
Despite winning initial regulatory approval at the state level, NV Energy needs rights of way from three federal agencies — the BLM, NPS and Bureau of Indian Affairs — to move forward with the project.
The NPS must review any permit applications for infrastructure within the boundaries of its park units; utilities that pass over, under or through NPS-managed lands must receive a right of way (ROW) permit from the agency. The NPS can issue ROW permits only for uses authorized by Congress and only if there is no practical alternative to using NPS land.
According to PEER, the NPS’ Organic Act forbids impairment of park resources, and the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act forbids the destruction of fossils on federal land. And, according to a study (proposed by the NPS and funded by NV Energy) using ground-penetrating radar, there is a strong likelihood of “vertebrate skeletal elements” along the proposed Greenlink West transmission line.
Helseth said the Nevada BLM office was advised to seek a special use permit to go through the monument “rather than fight the boundary, which could become political.”
“What we did is we worked with the park to carefully design the least impactful alternative with the park, which is a monopole,” Helseth said. “We’ve been very careful trying to monitor paleontological resources and position the poles where we’re not finding cultural resources. It’s a matter of very careful design through there. It’s kind of a rock and a hard spot on that one.”
And, he pointed out, running the lines through TUSK is still just an alternative. While it is the preferred option, he pointed out that it could still be rerouted.
But “If BLM and NV Energy persist with their current corridor route, the project will be tied up in litigation for years to come,” according to Ruch.
The BLM is in the process of drafting its environmental impact statement for the project, and a decision is expected to be made this spring. Once and if approved, the project is estimated to take about three years to construct.
Public comments on Greenlink West are being accepted through Aug. 23.
Its companion transmission line project, Greenlink North, would run through White Pine, Eureka, Lander, Churchill and Lyon counties. That project is in the scoping period, with a draft environmental impact statement coming out in the fall and a record of decision expected to be released in winter of 2024.
Here’s what else I’m watching this week:
When utility-scale solar panels no longer work, most are tossed into landfills. A North American company is growing a business to recycle them, the Associated Press reports.
Another green energy conundrum — who should have the right to fix e-bikes in need of repair? Read more in Grist.
Pyramid Lake’s cui-ui and Lahontan cutthroat trout populations suffered as the federal government diverted water meant for the lake to a Northern Nevada wildlife refuge for nearly two decades. Now, the federal government is looking to permanently divert the water, and the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe is suing, the Nevada Current’s Jennifer Solis reports.
Since the start of the century, more than 40 trillion liters of water have been lost from the Colorado River Basin due to climate change, according to a new study by the American Geophysical Union.