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Northern Pass opponents lay out vision for the future

EASTON -While Northern Pass officials said they remain confident they have filed paperwork necessary to build a second line next to an existing right-of-way on the White Mountain National Forest, at least one opponent told 150 people Sunday the project does not meet the 'high hurdles' of the forest plan.

Jim Dannis of Dalton, an outspoken opponent of the proposed 180-mile power transmission project, said he researched the issue and said there may be ways the project can get around the federal rules, if there is extreme political pressure exerted to get hydro power from Quebec to New England.

While Dannis estimated it might take another three years for the U.S. Forest Service to decide on the application to run new lines through 10 miles of forest, he warned that gives project proponents more time to line up support.

Dannis was among a number of opponents to the Northern Pass project who spoke at a meeting sponsored by the Town of Easton Conservation Commission. Northern Pass officials were not invited and did not attend.

The focus of the meeting was to explore the White Mountain National Forest and the commision's role in the Northern Pass proposal.

Northeast Utilities, the parent company of Public Service Company of New Hampshire, and Hydro-Quebec are seeking federal approval to bring hydro power from Quebec to the New England grid through New Hampshire, using above-ground transmission towers which they believe will average about 85 feet in height. Opponents are concerned that the visual impact will hurt property values and tourism.

The project would use 140 miles of existing right-of-way from Groveton to Deerfield. The utilities are still working to find 40 miles of new right-of-way in the north. The proposal includes going through forest land in Easton, Woodstock, Lincoln and Thornton, including a crossing of the Appalachian Trail.

Susan Schibanoff of Easton, who writes the opposition blog called 'Bury the Northern Pass,' noted that the utility does not have a traditional easement or permanent land rights to run electricity for public use. A special use permit for the for-profit Northern Pass project is much different, she said, and has to be approved by the forest supervisor.

Tom Wagner, the current supervisor of the 780,000-acre White Mountains Forest, said he will wait for the project's federal Environmental Impact Statement to be completed before he rules on whether to issue the permit. He will use the Forest Plan of 2005 as the guiding management document.

Dannis said the plan has some pretty strong language in it, which may preclude the project from getting approval.

'Private uses of the National Forest System land must not be authorized when such uses can be reasonably accommodated on other lands,' the document states. It also notes 'special uses must be managed to best serve public interest,' and particularly when crossing the Appalachian Trail, the document states the new line cannot be strung unless there is 'an overriding public need.'

It also states that 'permits must not be authorized that create an exclusive or a perpetual right or use or occupancy that would in effect grant title to federal land ... or would, in effect, create the appearance of granting such a right,' the forest plan reads.

Dannis said while some of that guiding language would make it difficult for the Forest Service to approve such a project, it may meet with politics if the project is seen as being wanted for renewable power and federal energy policy could be invoked to trump the language in the Forest Plan.

Mike Skelton, spokesman for Northern Pass, said the application his group has filed with the Forest Service is consistent with the requirements for a special use permit. Skelton said the existing transmission line through the forest has coexisted with the forest for the past 60 years.

'There are both federal and state processes in place that will determine whether Northern Pass moves ahead and we will continue to work with officials and the public to make this project work for New Hampshire,' Skelton said.

'We believe Northern Pass is a vital step in meeting our state's future energy needs while also achieving fuel diversity, at a time when our over-reliance on natural gas has been cited by ISO New England as a major risk factor. We will continue to work through the rigorous approval process to ensure the project moves forward,' he added.

'It is not news that a small group of opponents is engaging in speculation, or that they are presenting their opinions as facts,' Skelton concluded.

Also addressing the meeting were officials for the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, The Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Conservation Law Foundation, which all oppose the project.

Schibanoff said the project developers have identified crossing the forest as the biggest problem they face.

'Yesterday's meeting in Easton explored what that means and why it is true. This land was conserved for the long-term public good, not for short-term private gain. Accordingly, the forest permitting rules are written so that private projects must meet the very highest standards of accountability. We do not believe that an optional merchant project like Northern Pass meets those standards,' she said.

ptracy@unionleader.com


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