Landowners challenge renewable energy projects

Teepee rings in northwestern Montana are talismans of another time, hundreds of years ago when the Blackfeet Indians roamed the plains.

But some of these relics may meet their end if plans are realized to build a $213 million wind-power transmission line that connects Montana and the Canadian province of Alberta. A new Montana law expressly grants utilities and transmission companies the power of eminent domain to condemn and take private property.

The law could derail landowner efforts to move the project around areas of concern on their lands.

These particular teepee stones are in the back acres of Shirley Salois’ ranch just off the Blackfeet Indian reservation. Salois and her son Larry are Little Shell Indians who have blood ties to the Blackfeet and have lived on this land for generations. They are fighting in court the Canada-based Tonbridge Power Inc.’s plans to build the 230-kilovolt transmission line along a 214-mile corridor that would go straight through more than a dozen teepee rings.

Larry Salois said he wants to protect the area for his grandchildren, to preserve a piece of American Indian culture from the time when the Blackfeet were the stewards of the Cut Bank prairie.

“All of this has never been disturbed,” said Salois, 62, eying one circle of red-speckled stones set against the yellow plains.

Shirley and Larry Salois, along with a handful of other Montanans, are pushing back against the path of new electrical lines, citing concerns about their health and their property values, as well as threats to their history and culture.

The Tonbridge Power Inc. subsidiary building the Montana Alberta Tie Line tried to negotiate with the Salois and other landowners to reach deals for their land. When those negotiations failed, the company threatened to use the power of eminent domain, following through in the Salois’ case. The Salois challenged the utility’s right to eminent domain in court and last year won a district court decision.

The case is now pending before the state Supreme Court. But the new law granting eminent domain powers to utilities could change that. It was backed by business, passed by state lawmakers after much wrangling and became law this month when Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer declined to veto it.

That’s put the Salois’ court case in jeopardy, along with the efforts of all the landowners trying to fight the course transmission line.

Bruce Maurer’s farmhouse is a hundred miles south of the Salois ranch along a dirt road in a town called Power. It is huddled in a stand of trees that has successfully resisted the forceful prairie wind.

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Maurer’s land is striated with dun-colored stubble, dirt and alkali spots. It’s tough to make a living off soil that gives up few nutrients to sustain crops. But its home, the land is where Maurer, 65, has lived his life and it’s where his mother grew up as well.

The Montana Alberta Tie Line would run through Maurer’s backyard, its black wires and 150-foot towers cutting off half of the view from his back deck.

Maurer says it doesn’t have to be that way.

“The whole problem with this is they’re saying that they have the absolute right to do whatever damn thing they please,” Maurer said.

He suggested alternate routes for the line that would cross his property elsewhere, out of sight. Many landowners including the Salois have suggested alternate routes as well. They said want the utilities path altered, not stopped altogether. Some want to shift the corridor a few yards; others want wholesale change.

But MATL’s developers say they can’t budge — at least not much.

Spokesman Darryl James said some of the alterations people are asking for are reasonable and the company can make changes if they are within the current path. Requests that deviate too far from that line aren’t feasible because they could take up to a year to permit with environmental regulators.

He also said accommodating one or two line changes could open the entire project to complaints from landowners looking to get their way.

“We just can’t take that many steps backwards,” he said.

Another transmission project that could be expedited by the new eminent domain law is the Mountain States Transmission Intertie utility line. The project by NorthWestern Energy would run power generated from renewable resources in Broadwater County through southwestern Montana and into Idaho to provide electricity for Western states.

It’s further away from completion than the MATL line, but landowners along its path are no less concerned.

Several miles of the line will cut through Marie Garrison’s ranch south of Butte. She has helped organize a group of landowners who share her concerns over the MSTI line, and they’ve announced a petition drive to stop the new eminent domain law and put the issue to the voters in 2012.

John Fitzpatrick, from NorthWestern Energy, said landowner concerns have been taken into account throughout the planning for the project, and efforts to move the line now are attempts to halt it altogether.

The 2012 vote on eminent domain, if it comes to pass, may not help the Salois. The poles coming down from Canada already loom on the edge of their property. MATL officials expect construction to continue on the line in a few months.

Larry Salois is working to keep his Supreme Court case alive. He’s hoping to find a way to stop the new law and uphold the district court’s earlier ruling that private utilities don’t have the power of eminent domain.

“It’s important not only to the Blackfeet and the Little Shell, but I think it’s important to anyone,” Salois said.