Bear group debates intertie proposal

Route through wildlife refuge favored by industry; land managers unsure

Posted: Wednesday, March 08, 2000

A task force plotting brown bear conservation strategies avoided advocating a specific route for the new electrical line proposed between Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula.

The proposed Southern Intertie, which would provide a second high-voltage electrical transmission line from Anchorage, was one of several controversial topics on Tuesday's agenda for the Kenai Brown Bear Stakeholders Group, which includes industry and agency representatives.

Speaking by teleconference, Dora Gropp, manager of transmission and special projects for Chugach Electric Association, said railbelt utilities have considered four possible routes for the intertie. They eliminated a route via Beluga on the inlet's west side because the cost of protecting the undersea cable across Cook Inlet from current and debris is prohibitive.

They eliminated a route paralleling the existing transmission line along the Seward and Sterling highways to a substation in Cooper Landing because that would be subject to the same avalanches, icing and snow as the existing line, she said.

That leaves a route paralleling the Enstar Natural Gas Co. pipeline, which arcs across the flats from Soldotna to Turnagain Arm and Anchorage, and one paralleling the Tesoro pipeline. The Tesoro route follows the bluffs from Nikiski to Point Possession, then crosses under the mouth of Turnagain Arm to Anchorage.

Gropp said the submarine crossing along the Tesoro route is much more difficult than on the Enstar route. An electrical line parallel to the Enstar pipeline would cost about $90 million, while one parallel to the Tesoro pipeline would cost about $100 million. The utilities favor the Enstar route and have applied for permits. An environmental impact statement comparing the alternatives is expected in April.

The Audubon Society's John Schoen, who represents conservation groups on the stakeholder panel, questioned building along the Enstar route, which runs through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Utility corridors are not among the primary purposes of the refuge, he said.

Kirk McGee, vice president for real estate at Cook Inlet Region Inc., questioned whether an electrical line would bother the bears. In fact, clearing the line right of way might encourage the growth of good browse for moose, he said, and moose are good food for bears.

Some worry that opening access will increase the number of bears taken by hunters or shot by backcountry travelers in self defense. But there is already a road along the Enstar pipeline, McGee said, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service controls the gate.

Mark Chase, deputy manager of the Kenai refuge, said the refuge already has numerous problems with illegal access and lacks the staff to control them.

"If you put a big swath out there, people will come, and we can't control it," he said.

Clearing does create moose browse, he said. However, the refuge uses controlled burns to improve habitat, and installing overhead power lines creates safety problems with those.

Schoen said that if the intertie follows the Enstar pipeline, other utilities could follow -- maybe new fiber-optic cables, or a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope. While an electrical line may not drastically affect brown bears, he said, the cumulative effects of several utility projects could.

Mike Kania, Seward ranger for Chugach National Forest, said utility corridors can affect wildlife, especially if they are big.

"They create a cut in the landscape where the vegetation is different and where natural processes are stopped," he said. "They are always protected from wildfire."

Meanwhile, Unocal's Fay Sullivan, who represents oil and mining interests on the stakeholder panel, said debate over the intertie has continued since 1996. It is an uphill battle winning approval for big projects, she said, and that is frustrating for industry.

"I wouldn't recommend delaying the project or giving Fish and Wildlife any further reasons to deny the permit," she said.

Sullivan said she understands the concern over cumulative effects but thinks it is wrong to deny permits for one project based on what may follow. Each project must stand on its own merits, she said.

The stakeholders make recommendations by consensus, and advance only those agreed upon by all. Sullivan said she could guarantee there would be no consensus on specific recommendations for an intertie route.

In the end, stakeholders agreed on a recommendation that public land managers should plan and site new utilities to minimize the impacts to important brown bear habitat.

The stakeholder panel has written draft recommendations touching on topics from garbage control to preservation of bear migration corridors and road construction in important bear areas. The stakeholders are to discuss those with their constituencies, then consider possible changes on April 4. The state expects to publish draft recommendations April 18 for a 30-day public review and publish final recommendations by June 15.

Resource agencies expect to consider stakeholder recommendations in making land-use plans and land management decisions.

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