In his classic song, Glenn Yarbrough sings that Wisconsin is a land “to set you dreaming if it’s dreaming that you do.” And in no part of our state is that truer than in the hollows, coulees, ridges and bluffs of the Driftless, the rugged southwestern corner of Wisconsin that the glaciers left untouched. It is an area renowned for its biological diversity and scenic beauty.
Flowers aren’t the only thing popping up in the Driftless this spring. Almost as numerous are signs reading “No ATC.” The placards refer to a looming threat to the serenity and agricultural productivity of the Driftless because the region is facing the prospect of a long, ugly and unnecessary scar on the landscape.
ATC refers to American Transmission Company, the for-profit corporation jointly owned by electric utility companies. ATC is seeking to build a massive, 120-mile long, high-voltage transmission line through the heart of the Driftless area as well the adjacent Upper Mississippi River Wildlife Refuge. The proposed Cardinal-Hickory Creek line would erect more than 600 towers, each as high as a 17-story building. In addition, a wide swath of land on either side of the line would be cleared.
In addition to the visual blight, the proposed line would negatively affect agriculture. An impact statement issued by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection found that the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line “would impact significant acres of farmland.” The DATCP impact study reported that the line could take thousands of acres out of production, negatively impact crop yields, damage erosion controls which are essential in the hilly region, interfere with livestock, contaminate organic farms and cause forest fragmentation.
The line would also play havoc with private property rights since a misguided state law (which I tried to change when I was in the Legislature) allows ATC, a private, for-profit corporation, to take land from the owners without their permission. As many as 895 property owners may be affected by the project.
It’s not just agriculture and the environment that will be harmed by ATC’s plans. It’s also all the folks who pay utility bills. The line is projected to cost substantially more than half a billion dollars. ATC has a strong economic motive to build the line and fatten its profits, because it collects more than a 10 percent annual return on construction costs. As a result, it’s projected that the transmission line will cost utility customers billions of dollars over its lifetime, even though it is unnecessary. Wisconsin ratepayers have learned the hard way about the cost of unnecessary, expensive projects. We once enjoyed some of the lowest electric rates, but we’re now paying some of the highest, largely due to past utility white elephants.
ATC, in an expensive media blitz (subsidized by ratepayers) claims that its projects are necessary “to keep the lights on.” Not true. The Cardinal-Hickory Creek line is not necessary. Expert testimony before the Public Service Commission has shown that the ATC rationale for the project is based on faulty and sorely outdated projections of future electrical needs.
ATC falsely contends that the line will promote clean energy. However, expert testimony found that the transmission line project “provides very little increased wind generation and a net increase in coal generation in the upper Midwest.”
The decision whether to build the line will be made by the Public Service Commission in August or September. This month presents an opportunity for citizens to weigh in at public hearings: June 25 in Lancaster, June 26 in Madison and June 27 in Dodgeville. Let them know what you think.
Spencer Black served for 26 years in the state Legislature. He was chair of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee and the Assembly Democratic leader. Since leaving the Legislature, Black has been vice president for conservation for the national Sierra Club and adjunct professor of planning at UW-Madison.
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.