Power To The People

The proposal to relocate a section of the power line through Thompson Pass has not drawn much of my attention this summer. Others, though, are not standing by idly. Area citizens are concerned about an application by Copper Valley Electric Association (CVEA) to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources (DNR) presenting various proposals to move some of the towering earth-toned pylons and low hanging lines that carry electricity over the Pass.

CVEA has a couple of alternatives, including doing nothing, to solve a recurring problem it has with delivering power to and from Valdez. Since the line became operational in 1982, avalanches have roared down the slopes east of the highway across from Worthington Glacier State Park, occasionally demolishing one or more of the towers. Each mass of sliding snow leaves CVEA scrambling to pay for expensive and hazardous wintertime repairs. The power line will continue to be exposed to this 30-year-old political and engineering mistake unless something is done. It’s a difficult issue and the solutions that threaten the iconic views of the Worthington Glacier have rightfully riled local angst.

The current opponents of moving the line have good reason to want to protect the Worthington Glacier State Park and National Landmark. Moving ten towers into the viewshed will certainly have a negative impact on many of us.

The citizens of Alaska first became involved in protecting the Worthington Glacier viewshed when the power line was proposed in the 1970’s. The Worthington Glacier Natural National Landmark was first registered under the US Secretary of the Interior in 1968, a designation recommended by glaciologist Austin Post. Post had surveyed the area for the United States Geological Service in the late 1950’s and was impressed with the glacier’s possibilities due to its easy access and striking terminal features. Under the Historic Sites Act of 1935, of which the designation is legally derived, the glacier area was to assist future generations to:

“… identify and encourage the preservation of the full range of
geological and biological features that are determined to represent nationally significant examples of the Nation’s natural heritage”.

The power line was kept to the east side of
the highway in the Pass in its final design. This
kept about ten towers out of the views of visitors
approaching the 30-mile rise where we all see
the magnificence of the Worthington Glacier.
Despite warnings from avalanche experts and
political prodding by pro-development forces,
DNR and CVEA agreed with the greener side
of Valdez and the decision was made to place
the line where it exists today.

Viewshed controversies have confronted CVEA at other times. In 1992, the organization proposed an intertie to the Matsu Valley’s Railbelt Energy Grid that would have cost $35 million dollars. This project would have resulted in forty miles of towering pylons and saggy lines from Sheep Mountain to Palmer along the Glenn Highway, impeding views of the iconic Matanuska Glacier. Valdezeans just wanted cheap power like everyone else with the interite. Within weeks of the proposal, thousands of Southcentral Alaskans organized and opposed the project in a bitter public relations battle to protect their viewsheds. In 1996, after spending $1.6 million dollars to promote the project, CVEA determined that the intertie “could not be advanced.”

While today’s Valdez activists’ efforts are encouraging, history shows that efforts which focus too narrowly on an individual project, may not make much of a difference on the perfect scenery we desire while driving along the Richardson Highway. Instead, to make Alaska’s highways as scenic as they deserve, broad public action calling for enforcement of current state regulations in regards to right-of-ways, land-use permits and enforcement of the State Billboard Act would vastly improve the current picture.

Over the years the Thompson Pass
scenic corridor has seen encroachments
despite existing laws. If anything, the
power line is a small part of the bigger
issue of protecting viewscapes for our own
residential enjoyment and of course,
the tourism industry. Here are some
examples of what I mean.

1. When the Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT) opened up a huge gravel pit in the middle of Ptarmigan Flats at the base of Catcher’s Mitt no one noticed from road level. But, from any high elevation on the north side of Thompson Pass, this crater-sized clearing of alpine tundra is obvious. Looking down from a high point, such as when taking an alpine hike in summer, one sees a pit in the shape of a perfect square with no regard for landscaping the edges. Along with a singular, silty, and stagnant pond, that damage is unrepairable.

2. Another common viewshed problem in the area is abandoned (and later vandalized and burned) vehicles along the waysides going up and over Thompson Pass. To my knowledge, no one has been interested in requesting that DOT’s management dispose of abandoned vehicles. Some vehicles sat for years filled with broken glass and bullet holes. The few time I asked DOT to move the cars the agency’s typical reply was that there are no removal funds or that it is not authorized to move the roadside hazards.

3. There are two temporary use permit areas on state land managed by DNR that are quickly becoming more of a roadside eyesore than the CVEA power line. In one case, a defunct heliski company has abandoned its buildings on a temporary state land lease at Mile 18. In another case, a dilapidated rafting camp, sheds and a pair of snow-crushed school buses directly adjacent to the highway near Mile 17 continue to deteriorate. The rafting encampment lies just inside the City of Valdez boundary which, perhaps, muddles responsibility for permit compliance.

4. While I respect small roadside lodges and stores as much as anyone, it’s obvious that a few of these businesses along the highway are over-extending their advertising onto the state right-of-way, yet no one is telling them they can’t. Along the drive to Valdez the right-of way has, in places, become a storage lot for adjacent landowners. These encroachments are ugly, illegal, unsafe and have a negative economic impact on tourism. DOT has a very good program that permits certain forms of advertising by businesses in the right-of-way. According to federal and state standards, cleared, clean, accessible right-of -ways are critical to a community’s infrastructure, including public utilities and transportation. The state’s Billboard Act specifies what advertising is allowed within the Richardson Highway right-of-way.

A few years ago, it was suggested that Thompson Pass become part of a Richardson Highway National Scenic Byway. Some Alaskans, with no legal basis, became concerned about losing private land rights and persuaded the state to drop the proposal. I attended a number of heated hearings on the issues and was disappointed at the lack of support and misinformation on the program.

A Byway designation would have released millions of federal grant dollars which could have been available to assist with mitigating aesthetic issues such as the current CVEA proposal to move the power line. Grant money that could have helped bury lines, build bulwarks, and conduct avalanche control work was lost. Interestingly, CVEA sided with the opposition and staunchly opposed the Byway designation for various reasons, including the possibility that they would be forced to bury the Thompson Pass line.

The irony of losing the Byway initiative is demonstrated today along the newly designated Glenn Highway National Scenic Byway near the Matanuska Glacier. That section of highway continues to see millions of federal dollars for roadside improvements and viewshed protection and mitigation, all of which help offset state maintenance expenses.

Moving a couple of towers and aerial cables across the highway will most definitely add clutter to the spectacular views of the Worthington Glacier, thus I wish there was a better solution than to “pave paradise”. But until we ask state agencies to enforce existing laws, the proposal to move the line will do little to stop what is already happening along our highways. In the meantime, I will keep doing what I have become accustomed to doing: adjusting my gaze a few degrees to the left or right and hoping the picture improves the next time I pass through.

Matt Kinney (June 26, 2012)