Tom Wagner: Deciding Whether Northern Pass May Cross The White Mountain National Forest

Jul 5, 2012

The decisions on whether the controversial Northern Pass hydro-electric project goes ahead will be made by state and federal agencies. But a single person will make a crucial decision.

That is whether the high-voltage power lines should be allowed to cross the White Mountain National Forest, one of the state’s top tourist attractions and a huge recreational resource.

“I would be the person that would authorize that use on public land.”

That’s Tom Wagner and he is the top official at the White Mountain National Forest.

Wagner’s talking about Northern Pass’s request to use an existing right-of-way so it can cross about 10 miles of the national forest near Kinsman Mountain.

Northern Pass wants to bring hydro-electric power from Canada, running 180 miles through New Hampshire, primarily for use outside the state.

State and federal officials will make the overall decision about whether the Northern Pass project goes ahead.

But working from an unpretentious office at headquarters in Campton Wagner – who has headed up the White Mountain National Forest for about a decade - will decide what happens in the national forest.

For Northern Pass – and its opponents - that’s a key decision.

Public Service of New Hampshire already runs power lines through the national forest and Northern Pass says it will be cheaper and faster to use that same route.

Wagner must decide whether or not that’s in the public interest.

And in this case the definition of public interest goes beyond the forest boundary.

 “Public interest in this one is broader public interest. I have to look at what role does that public land play in the whole purpose and need of what this project is being proposed for.”

In short, Wagner must consider the nation’s energy needs.

He will also consider claims made by Northern Pass about the benefits of the project.

For example Northern Pass says it will help the economy, provide 1,200 construction jobs, tax revenues and be a “reliable source of low-carbon energy.”

Opponents don’t see it that way.

Wagner also has to consider whether there is a reasonable alternative to crossing the national forest.

Northern Pass says it looked at a route outside the national forest and it also considered burying the lines.

It concluded burial would be more disruptive and going outside the national forest would be longer, require buying land or easements and would impact more homes.

But the Conservation Law Foundation’s Christophe Courchesne says Northern Pass’ application didn’t address all the alternatives.

“Primarily we are concerned that the project is being sited there out of convenience and not out of a rational review of what would be the best route or technological alternative.”

The existing right-of-way was approved more than six decades ago and was designed to bring electricity to the North Country.

Opponents of Northern Pass say there is a huge difference between crossing the national forest to electrify homes and the for-profit motive of Hydro-Quebec and Public Service of New Hampshire.

To work through these issues Wagner says he will rely on the conclusions of an environmental impact statement being conducted by a consultant for the U.S. Department of Energy.

 “It is really complicated. So, it has to be based on a really thorough analysis in that environmental impact statement. What are the economic benefits, what are the resource trade-offs, many things.”

Wagner says his staff will be providing information about the impacts on the national forest to the consultants.

Even if the Environmental Impact Statement concludes the project is in the public interest and the Department of Energy approves it, Wagner says he could still turn it down.

One reason would be the White Mountain National Forest Plan, a huge document designed to preserve and protect the forest.

 “I would screen all that against what we say in our forest plan. We have specific standards and guidelines that talk about protection of wetlands, talk about scenic integrity, talk about wildlife habitat, all of those things would need to be factored into my decision and then weigh those against the public interest of power line transmission.”

One of the plan’s goals is a “natural-appearing landscape.”

That forest plan also criticizes the current right-of-way as “a visual intrusion.”

Critics of Northern Pass say that “visual intrusion” would get much worse.

Northern Pass says it will try to minimize the visual impact.

But the current towers are about 52 feet tall.

According to the preliminary design the new, high-voltage towers would be at least twice as tall.

A related issue is construction which will require building some temporary roads and work bases.

It will take place on-and-off over 30 months.

If Wagner ever dealt with such a complicated issue it doesn’t come immediately to mind.

“I mean I have to balance the overall use of the forest for the overall good of current generations and future generations.”

Wagner probably won’t have to deal with Northern Pass for a while.

From a regulatory standpoint the project is on hold while Northern Pass looks for a route through Northern Coos.

But for Northern Pass’ advocates and opponents Tom Wagner’s decision is likely to be his legacy.