Four state and national conservation groups are suing two federal agencies over a proposed power line between northern Iowa and southwestern Wisconsin that would cut across a national wildlife refuge.
The groups claim the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service violated federal law by authorizing the line, known as Cardinal-Hickory Creek, to cross the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, and the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service failed to consider alternatives in its environmental review.
If allowed to proceed, the line will have “significant negative impacts” on the environment, wildlife, property values, agriculture, outdoor recreation and tourism, and protected lands along the entire 101-mile route between Dubuque, Iowa, and Middleton, the groups claim in a complaint filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for Western Wisconsin.
UW-Platteville geographers sampled oaks across the Driftless region, including some that have been growing since the 1700s. They sampled rafters from historic homes and barns built from locally harvested timber to push the record back another century.
They say the river crossing presents a direct threat to endangered birds and mussels.
The case was filed by the Environmental Law and Policy Center on behalf of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, Driftless Area Land Conservancy, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife.
“This lawsuit is not just about one wildlife refuge. It is really an effort to preserve our public conservation lands from encroachment from massive transmission lines and pipelines,” said Scott Strand, an attorney with ELPC. “For big right-of-way projects like high-voltage transmission lines, crossing public lands has too often been the first resort, because getting permission from the government has too often been easier than dealing with private landowners.”
Alliant Energy said the decision will allow it to avoid some $250 million in maintenance and upgrade costs.
The suit asks the court to block the Fish & Wildlife Service from granting an easement and to require the Rural Utilities Service to conduct a new environmental study considering alternatives.
The same groups on Monday threatened to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to consult with the Fish & Wildlife Service before granting a permit for the line to cross the river. They gave the agency 60 days to correct the alleged violations.
Two of the groups, Driftless Area Land Conservancy and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, are pursuing separate cases in state and federal court to block the $492 million project, a joint venture of American Transmission Co., ITC Midwest and Dairyland Power Cooperative.
In a statement, the owners of the proposed line defended the environmental review process as “robust” and said the allegations are “without merit.”
Spokespeople for the two federal agencies declined to comment on the litigation.
Construction of the line is expected to begin this fall barring a court injunction.
The high-voltage line would use 14 towers — up to 20-stories high — to carry wires along a 260-foot-wide corridor through the refuge from the Turkey River bottoms in Iowa to the site of a former power plant north of Cassville.
The project would disturb about 39 acres of the 240,000-acre refuge.
Geoffrey L. Haskett, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, said in a statement the Fish & Wildlife Service granted the utilities a right-of-way even though the line is not a “compatible use” of the refuge.
Tracey Holloway, a professor of atmospheric science at UW-Madison, is one of half a dozen leading climate scientists (and mothers) who’ve banded together to motivate other moms to take action on the threat of climate change.
“This is actually a major violation,” Haskett said. “If it is allowed to stand, it is a precedent that will reverberate across and weaken the entire refuge system.”