Worth Remembering: Northern Pass Would Mean Big Changes in the White Mountains

Christophe Courchesne

(photo credit: flickr/crschmidt)

(photo credit: flickr/crschmidt)

With the Northern Pass “new route” drama entering its third year (Northeast Utilities executives once again failed to announce any progress on last week’s investor conference call), it’s important to remember that all we’ve been talking about is the northernmost forty miles of what is a 180-mile project that stretches from the Canadian border to southeastern New Hampshire.

The “new route” will not change one of the proposed Northern Pass project’s most troubling segments: approximately 10 miles through the White Mountain National Forest, within the towns of Easton, Lincoln, and Woodstock. It goes without saying that the Forest is one of New Hampshire’s most treasured public assets: a vast and magnificent wilderness that is among the most accessible and visited natural wonders in the nation and the cornerstone of the state’s tourist and recreation economy. The Forest is an awe-inspiring place, and its ongoing stewardship is one of those things that make me profoundly proud of this country.

Project affiliate Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSNH) has a “special use permit” from the United States Forest Service for an existing transmission line, built in 1948, which is largely comprised of H-frame wooden poles standing about 50 feet tall. Northern Pass developer Northern Pass Transmission LLC (NPT) is now seeking a special use permit to remove the existing line and build two new sets of towers (one carrying the new Northern Pass transmission line and the other carrying the existing line) with a “typical” height of 85 feet.

Proposed Northern Pass tower design (existing towers in background)

Proposed Northern Pass tower design (existing towers in background)

You can read NPT’s permit application here (PDF) and download its attachments here. The project’s construction would impact important wildlife habitat and ecologically sensitive high-altitude wetlands, and the new more prominent towers would cross the Appalachian Trail and impact a number of the Forest’s other signature hiking areas and viewsheds. It’s also worth noting that the project’s failure to provide meaningful greenhouse gas emission reductions falls particularly hard on the Forest, where climate change is already shifting seasons, reducing snowpack levels, and disrupting mountain ecosystems in significant ways.

It will be up to the United States Forest Service – and specifically the supervisor of the White Mountain National Forest  – to decide whether to approve NPT’s permit application. In particular, the Forest Service must determine whether granting the proposed use is “in the public interest” and consistent with the current management plan for the Forest, which includes special protections for the Forest’s most important natural and scenic resources. This decision will follow the United States Department of Energy’s environmental review of the Northern Pass project as a whole, which CLF has been fighting to improve since the project was first announced in 2010.

Earlier this year, a diverse coalition of conservation organizations, including CLF, along with a grassroots group, several Forest communities, and the regional land use planning commission wrote to the Forest Service, urging the agency to take all available steps at its disposal to ensure comprehensive and rigorous scrutiny of the Northern Pass project and a full analysis of all reasonable alternatives, especially those alternatives that avoid or minimize impacts within the Forest.

Our letter (PDF) highlighted the Forest Service’s stewardship obligations and the special and stringent standards for granting a special use permit. We explained that the Northern Pass project, as proposed, is very different from an ordinary utility transmission line constructed to extend service or improve system reliability; the project is much more like a private commercial development, with no specific policy or law encouraging or requiring its development. We suggested that it was critical for the Forest Service to take these features into account as it weighs whether the project would be consistent with the “public interest” and the Forest’s management plan. Finally, we recommended that the Forest Service avoid relying on data collected by the first contractor hired to conduct the federal environmental review of the project, which was withdrawn by NPT after a public uproar, and that the Forest Service exercise its prerogative to order Forest-specific studies and to scrutinize and question all data and analysis presented by the current contractor team, the objectivity of which is in serious doubt.

Oddly, the federal environmental review of Northern Pass seems to be moving forward even as the project is stalled and the northernmost route has not been disclosed. As field work, studies, and analysis proceed, the Forest Service is hearing from many voices registering strong opposition to Northern Pass’s special use permit application, through efforts like ProtectWMNF.org and this recent citizen-generated petition. If you are concerned about the impacts of the Northern Pass project on the White Mountains, you can add your voice through those resources or by filing a comment with the United States Department of Energy.

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