Idaho

Transmission line may threaten historic Oregon Trail

In an Aug. 23, 2018 photo, Oregon Trail markers line the private property to indicate the location for those who are curious. (Cherise Kaechele / Associated Press)

LA GRANDE, Ore. – Construction of the Boardman to Hemingway (B2H) electric transmission line might do what Father Time’s corrosive hand has not – destroy the last remaining remnants of the Oregon Trail in Union County.

This is the fear of Lanetta Paul, a passionate Oregon Trail supporter who lives in the Morgan Lake area.

Paul, who has led many people on tours of the Oregon Trail from the area near her home to Hilgard State Park, seven miles away, is among those working to have the proposed B2H route changed so that it is far from Union County’s Oregon Trail ruts, allowing them to remain a tangible link to this region’s story.

This is critical, she said, for there will be no second chances when it comes to preserving what’s left of the Oregon Trail.

“Once it is gone, it is gone forever,” Paul said. “It is a piece of history lost.”

John Williams, who also lives near Morgan Lake Road, shares Paul’s sense of urgency. He owns land with Oregon Trail ruts and said those and all ruts between the Morgan Lake area and Hilgard State Park are at risk because a portion of the B2H transmission line may run along this route under a plan proposed by PacifiCorp, the Bonneville Power Administration and Idaho Power, who would pay for and construct the B2H line, which would extend from Boardman to the Hemingway substation near Melba, Idaho.

Williams said the proposed plan calls for the transmission line and its poles to be 125 feet outside the Oregon Trail on either side, but fears this is close enough to pose a threat to the historical remnants because of the heavy equipment that would have to be brought in to construct the massive transmission line. He said if the equipment ran over the ruts, it would cause irreparable damage.

Gail Carbiener, of Bend, a member of the Oregon-California Trail Association, shares Williams’ concern.

He noted the equipment brought in would be enormous, with some items such as cranes weighing close to 100,000 pounds.

“It would be huge,” he said.

More than ruts are at risk by the proposed B2H line. Williams said the proposed project’s plan calls for a large tower to be built in the middle of an area that was a campsite for Oregon Trail pioneers. He said numerous artifacts have been found at the site with a metal detector within the past two years during searches he assisted. Items found include oxen shoes, a bracket for a wagon and many nails. Williams said nails are commonly found along the Oregon Trail.

“It has been called the trail of nails,” he said.

The La Grande resident said he fears if a tower is placed at the campsite, the Oregon Trail artifacts buried underneath it may be lost forever.

The B2H transmission line poles would be over 100 feet high, Carbiener said. This would be much greater than the height of most power lines in the area and a great concern to Carbiener. He said such towering poles would detract from the setting of the Oregon Trail. He also said the presence of power lines of any size would be a detriment in some portions of the Oregon Trail.

Carbiener notes today there are still passages at and near the Blue Mountain Crossing Interpretive Center 16 miles west of La Grande where the Oregon Trail can be seen in a setting where there are no power lines, buildings or roads.

“You can walk there today and see exactly what the Oregon Trail pioneers saw,” Carbiener said.

He said the B2H transmission line, if installed as proposed, would rob people of this opportunity in some areas.

“It would destroy view sheds,” he said.

A statement sent to the Observer from Idaho Powder archaeologist Shane Baker said the company is sensitive to the concerns expressed by Williams, Carbiener, Paul and others.

“Idaho Power is very aware of the historic significance of the Oregon Trail, as well as other historic trails and resources in the area of the proposed project, and did everything reasonably possible to protect and consider the trail during the process of selecting a proposed route. We’ve spent time documenting where trail segments occur within the vicinity of the project and in planning how to avoid and protect the trail. We also met with landowners, stakeholders, including trail group representatives, to hear their concerns and solicit their input,” the statement read.

Idaho Power also noted in its statement that federal and state laws require it to take all historic resources into consideration during the planning and permitting process, and to protect them.

“There’s a federal and state process that must be followed that protects historic and other natural resources,” according to the statement. “Our intent is to minimize impacts to all resources. During design and construction, we would avoid placing towers on any identified trail segments, or ruts, and site the project in a manner that reduces direct and indirect impacts. In some instances, mitigation may be an appropriate method to offset impacts.”

Idaho Power officials noted the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center just outside Baker City and the Birch Creek area in Malheur County are examples where several steps were taken in its route proposal to protect the Oregon Trail. The company said it is committed to minimizing visual impacts by using lower tower designs that are more consistent with existing transmission towers.

The statement also said Idaho Power intends to do more to address the concerns about B2H’s proximity to the Oregon Trail: “We plan to continue working with the community, landowners and trail group representatives to identify other potential mitigation ideas; such as public education and outreach by constructing and installing interpretive signs about the trail and its history.”

Carbiener said the Oregon-California Trails Association is taking steps to protect the Oregon Trail, such as attempting to get all portions of the historical trail along the B2H route put on the National Register of Historic Places. The Oregon-California Trails Association is now preparing an application for this. Carbiener hopes this will help sway PacifiCorp, the Bonneville Power Administration and Idaho Power to alter the proposed B2H route so the Oregon Trail is not impacted.

“It may not legally keep them from following the B2H route now proposed,” Carbiener said, “but it may discourage them.”