Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Douglas County: No Line and No Power

If you've spent any time in northwestern Wisconsin over the last four or five years, you've probably noticed signs throughout the region that read "NO LINE" in bold letters. It's a reference to the plan by American Transmission Co. of Pewaukee to build a high-voltage power line linking Wausau with Duluth.

Those opposed to the power line are concerned about the environmental impact of the project, which would run for 210 miles through the northwoods, cutting through forests, and across rivers and wetlands. Those in the proposed path of the power line are also rightly concerned about property values in a region of the state where incomes are low, taxes are far too high, and the main industry involves drawing tourists to pristine lakes and woods. So it would be simplistic to assume that those opposed to the line are all lefty environmentalists. The livelihood of many residents of the region depends on the environment.

Last week the Douglas County board voted 15-11 to continue its opposition to the power line, in a move celebrated by environmentalists. But is it really a victory? ATC will be building the power line anyway. What the Douglas County board has done is effectively cut itself out of the decision-making process.

Our elected officials issued a clear, emphatic “no” when the votes were tallied, but they were not merely saying no to American Transmission Co. and the power line. It’s clear to us that the County Board also said no to a few other things — such as the power to negotiate with ATC leaders, the ability to reduce the potential impact of the power line on its constituents and the opportunity to reap a financial windfall that can help out our financially strapped county.

By saying no to the project, Douglas County essentially said yes to a loss of leverage on the issue altogether. The Public Service Commission has approved the project, many high-ranking political leaders know that the line is needed and the permits needed to grant ATC the access it needs to construct the line are being written and approved. The line will be built, the only variable is what route it takes, but our county leaders will no longer be a part of that process.

. . .

The potential exists for many more private landowners to be impacted now that the county has opted out of the project. Had Douglas County agreed to negotiate, only a handful of citizens would have been affected. Now somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 to 80 folks might have to worry about the power line becoming a part of their land. The county could have avoided this altogether.

The Superior Daily Telegram also had harsh words for members of the environmentalist group SOUL (Save Our Unique Lands).

It’s ironic that while SOUL (Save Our Unique Lands) members are no doubt celebrating what they perceive to be a victory, they’ve effectively lost a lot of power themselves. They could have been a part of the planning, making sure that the rights of property owners aren’t infringed and that their environmental concerns are addressed. Not anymore. The role of SOUL now drops from being that of a lobbyist to a run-of-the-mill protester.

In fact, SOUL members were criticized in a separate editorial for their behavior at the hearing.

I grew up in northwestern Wisconsin, in a family business that depended on tourism. I'm sympathetic to those who oppose the power line, but there's truth to the old adage that you can't fight city hall. Over the last five years, it should have become clear that ATC would not be altering its plans. In this case, the best thing to do is to get into a position where you can have a say in the matter. Washburn and Marathon Counties figured out that if you can't beat 'em, at least you can have a seat at the negotiating table. In saying 'no' to the power line, Douglas County said 'no' to any negotiating power it might have had.

Environmentalists' refusal to give an inch will result in ATC taking much more than a mile.

(Cross posted to Badger Blog Alliance)


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