From: Roger Alford, Associated Press
Published April 10, 2006 12:00 AM

State OKs Power Line Through Kentucky Forest

FRANKFORT, Ky. — A state agency has approved an electric cooperative's plan to cut a 100-foot-wide swath across nearly 5 miles of the Daniel Boone National Forest, a project that environmentalists fear could open the woodlands to unwelcome species that would wage war on migratory songbirds.

The Public Service Commission, in a decision filed Friday, gave East Kentucky Power Cooperative approval to construct power lines across the northern section of the national forest.

The environmental group Kentucky Heartwood has argued that invaders, including the brown-headed cowbird that lays its eggs in borrowed nests, may use the passage to reach areas in the forest's interior where migratory songbirds now raise their young.

Paul Lovelace, executive director of Kentucky Heartwood, said the PSC's decision doesn't end the fight to keep the power lines out of the Daniel Boone. He said the issue could end up in federal court if the U.S. Forest Service accepts the proposed right of way instead of forcing the electric cooperative to choose a route around the public land.

"This is a power line that is going to be cut through a national forest when there are alternative routes," Lovelace said.

Marie Walker, spokeswoman for the Forest Service in Winchester, said her agency is reviewing the PSC's ruling. "We'll make a decision next week on how we are going to proceed," she said.

Nick Comer, spokesman for East Kentucky Power, said the electric transmission line is critically needed. Without it, he said, residents in a 10-county area around Morehead could face blackouts because the existing grid is becoming overloaded.

The route through the national forest was proposed after nearly four years of study that involved assessments of several alternatives, Comer said, including one that would go around the public land.

"We felt like this is the least impact route," he said. "We understand there will be some impact on the environment, but we're working with the Forest Service to minimize that impact."

For example, instead of cutting trees in low-lying areas, Comer said the electric cooperative would route the power lines over them. That would mean about 20 percent of the trees along the route would not have to be cut, he said.

Kentucky Heartwood has voiced concern about the use of herbicides along the right of way, saying they could pose a danger not only to wildlife but also to humans exposed to them. Proposed use of herbicides is one of the environmental group's key argument against the project.

The Forest Service acknowledged in a report that the project will increase the diversity of wildlife, but said similar paths cut through the forest in the past have had no significant effects on the environment.

Environmentalists staunchly disagree, pointing to the cowbirds to make their point. The birds, among the most abundant and widespread in North America, lay up to 40 eggs each a year in borrowed nests. In some cases, songbirds end up incubating larger cowbird eggs. Those eggs hatch into voracious fledglings that grow fast, grabbing most of the food from the adults, causing other young birds in the nest to starve.

Kentucky Heartwood contends forest supervisors could protect songbirds by leaving the trees in place. Cowbirds prefer open, grassy areas, like those created by power line rights of way, so banning power lines, environmentalists say, would help keep them out.

Kentucky Heartwood has said the grassy opening in the forest also would benefit other animals that prey on songbirds, including black snakes, raccoons and opossums that raid their nests, eating eggs and hatchlings.

The Public Service Commission had denied East Kentucky Power's request for the same route last year, saying the electric cooperative should consider alternative routes.

However, Andrew Melnykovych, spokesman for the agency, said the electric cooperative had demonstrated the route through the forest was the best option for providing reliable service in the rapidly growing area.

"The fact that this power line crosses the forest was not anything the PSC takes lightly, by any means," Melnykovych said. "To paraphrase the first order, if you're going to do this, you'd better have a good reason for it."

Source: Associated Press

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