MSTI liaison group formalizes, discusses future plans

DILLON – The project liaison group for a proposed power line, which has generated controversy in both Montana and Idaho, met for the first time last week in Dillon.

The liaison group is composed of people from both states with diverse interests and has the goal of advising the Mountain States Transmission Intertie project review team.

“They were chosen because of their interest and involvement with the MSTI project,” said Dennis Glick, with Future West, a non-profit land use consulting group in Bozeman.

Future West is part of the MSTI project review team, along with five other nonprofit groups and Madison and Jefferson Counties.

The liaison group is composed of more than 15 people who will work with the communities they represent and the project review group on analyzing the MSTI project.

“We feel like the liaison group is a really important component to the project,” Glick said.

MSTI is a high-voltage transmission line project proposed by NorthWestern Energy. It calls for the construction 500-kilovolt lines from Townsend to southern Idaho. The stated purpose of the line is to carry power generated in Montana to points south.

The Bureau of Land Management and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality are currently reviewing the project. These agencies are expected to release a Draft Environmental Impact Statement this coming spring.

Last year, the BLM and DEQ indicated that a preferred route for the transmission lines was through the Jefferson River Valley in the western portion of Madison County. Citizens were concerned and upset over the idea of having the project come through their properties and near their communities. In a response to concerns from citizens, Madison County reached out to the Western Environmental Law Center. WELC put together the review team, which consists of themselves, Future West, the Sonoran Institute, Craighead Institute and Headwaters Economics.

The team came up with two ways of analyzing the MSTI project, both economically and from a community and wildlife values standpoint. Earlier this year, the group presented their research to Madison and Jefferson County officials. The decision was made at that time to try and expand their analysis to encompass the entire MSTI line.

In August, NorthWestern Energy decided to give the groups about $230,000 to fund the research. Madison and Jefferson Counties have also contributed funds toward the research.

Part of the plan was the formation of a liaison group to help guide the project review team’s work and gather input from the communities that could potentially be impacted by the MSTI project.

Part of Thursday’s meeting was to formalize the liaison group and elect a chairman and vice chairman to organize meetings.

“We tried to put together a committee as diverse as we could get,” said Jefferson County Commissioner Leonard Wortman, who was voted to be the group’s chairman.

Despite the diversity within the group, the decision was made to work toward consensus on all decisions.

The group is made up of ranchers, county commissioners, and conservation group members. Representatives from the BLM and NorthWestern Energy will serve on the group only in a non-voting role.

The MSTI review process that was initiated by Madison County has been very transparent, said Madison County Commissioner Dan Happel, who will serve as the group’s vice chairman.

That transparency will be needed to continue with the liaison group, Happel said.

At their first meeting, the group heard presentations on the economic portion of the review as well as the community and wildlife values modeling project.

Julia Haggerty from Headwaters Economics is working the economic review of the MSTI project and updated the group on her work looking at economic impacts of the MSTI and outlined her work going forward. At this point she has completed an analysis of the economic impacts of MSTI to Madison County and is expanding that study to look at the entire length of the MSIT project.

A caveat in her presentation concerned a study of MSTI’s impacts to property values. NorthWestern Energy has commissioned a study on the topic and Haggerty will see the results of that study once it has been peer reviewed. A property values study is beyond the scope of work outlined for Headwaters Economics and beyond their expertise, she said.

The group decided to press NorthWestern Energy to provide Haggerty with the property values study as soon as it is completed and prior to it being peer reviewed.

The group also worked on the mapping analysis being conducted by the Sonoran Institute and Craighead Institute.

The analysis will survey public officials and community groups along the MSTI project corridor about community and wildlife values. These surveys will be incorporated into a map that will outline the best route for the MSTI project given what is important to citizens and local wildlife. The map will also take into account engineering limitations for the project.

Cameron Ellis, from the Sonoran Institute and Brent Brock from the Craighead Institute presented the mapping and survey and engaged the group in a discussion to refine the survey to address the appropriate community values including viewshed, agriculture and recreation.

The next step for the group will be another meeting in January, Glick said. One agenda item will certainly be fine-tuning the mapping survey and model.

Ultimately, the liaison group and review team will hold workshops with public officials and selected community groups along the proposed MSTI corridor in order to get their input on the community values survey, he said.
For more information on the MSTI review team and the liaison group, look at their website – www.MSTIreviewproject.org.

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