Courthouse News Service
The Driftless Area is the Midwest’s premier biodiversity hotspot, covering the ancient landscape surrounding the Mississippi River as it flows through northern Illinois, western Wisconsin, eastern Minnesota and eastern Iowa.
The area contains a high concentration of unique topographical and geological features, like hundreds of rare cold-water tributary streams that flow in and out of porous limestone “karst” rock formations and into the Mississippi River. Because of that unique geology, the Driftless Area contains dozens of uncommon species of reptiles, amphibians and plants, with abundant populations of native fish. The region plays a critical role as a rest and feeding stop for more than half of North America’s bird species, forming the largest contiguous area of fish and wildlife habitat remaining in the central United States.
The Driftless Area, like other special natural places, is under threat from development and resultant habitat fragmentation and degradation, pollution, the spread of invasive alien species and climate change. If action is not taken soon, many native species and ecosystems will disappear.
ELPC is representing the Driftless Area Land Conservancy (DALC) in a campaign against a proposed new high voltage transmission line that would run from Dubuque County, Iowa to Middleton, Wisconsin, just west of Madison. This new power line would cross the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge near Cassville, Wisconsin, and then cut a swath through the Driftless Area of southwest Wisconsin, a unique and scenic landscape. The Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line, proposed by the American Transmission Company (ATC), Iowa Transmission Company (ITC), and Dairyland Power Cooperative, would feature towers up to 17 stories tall, negatively affect many special natural resource areas in Wisconsin, including the Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area, Governor Dodge State Park, Military Ridge State Trail, Dodgeville and Wyoming Oak Woodlands/Savanna Conservation Opportunity Area, the Pecatonica State Trail, and the Ice Age State Trail. It would have broad-reaching adverse effects, from impacts on endangered species to tourism to farming operations to property values.
“The proposed Cardinal-Hickory Creek line would cut across the wildlife refuge and stretch northeast toward Madison on towers as tall as 17-story buildings through the Driftless Area — a geological anomaly where the pancake flat Midwest gives way to forested hills and the picturesque barns of family-owned dairy farms.” -Michael Hawthorne, Chicago Tribune
ELPC is working to show decision-makers and stakeholders that this huge new high voltage transmission line is not needed. In fact, electricity demand in southwest and central Wisconsin and points eastward is flat or declining. Even if there was a need for electricity in the area, it could be better and more efficiently met through energy efficiency, demand management, distributed generation, storage, and local renewable energy resources, which would provide local jobs and support the local economy.
The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin approved the transmission line in August 2019. ELPC has filed a lawsuit in the Dane County circuit court on behalf of its clients challenging this approval. ELPC also filed a separate lawsuit in federal district court challenging the Commissioners’ refusal to recuse themselves, even though two of the three Commissioners have close ties to proponents of the line.
In February 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service released the Record of Decision, the last step in its environmental review process. The Rural Utilities Service’s environmental review has several flaws, including failing to consider how technologies like distributed generation and battery storage could more cheaply provide the same benefits to the electric grid while avoiding significant impacts to the environment. At the same time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a determination that it could move forward with permitting the construction of the transmission line through the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. The Fish and Wildlife Service tries to argue that the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line would only be a minor realignment of an existing power line, even though it is an entirely new project. ELPC is considering challenges to these agency decisions.