Pea Ridge National Military Park takes conciliatory tone on SWEPCO impacts  
Becky Gillette

The Pea Ridge National Military Park (Park) has been working for years on projects to return the park to conditions similar to those that existed in 1862 when the Battle of Pea Ridge was waged which was successful in allowing the Union to retain control of northern Arkansas and Missouri during the Civil War.

Park officials are currently working on a major landscaping effort to return the park to the types of vegetation that existed in 1862. That includes cutting down 749 acres of cedar trees, planting corn fields, and re-establishing hundreds of acres of open woodlands in the park that is considered one of the better preserved Civil War battlefields in the country.

Park officials have also expended large amounts of time and effort working with state and federal highway officials to move US Hwy. 62 further from the park during the current widening of the highway.

“The new alignment will place the highway behind a treed strip of land that will act as both a sound and visual screen, and overall reduce the impact the highway currently has on the Park,” said a recent letter from the National Park Service to the Arkansas Public Service Commission (APSC) regarding plans by American Electric Power (AEP)\Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO) to build a large transmission line within view of the park, and within the boundaries of lands the park service has plans to acquire.

The letter was responding to the current petitions for a rehearing before the ASPC that have been requested by SWEPCO and the citizen opposition group Save The Ozarks. SWEPCO is asking for the ASPC to overturn its decision to approve Route 109 that goes into Missouri, and instead use SWEPCO’s originally preferred Route 33 – with modifications to move the route further from the park.

“We believe the project if built along the proposed Route 33 as originally proposed would have unacceptable impacts on resources of the Park,” the letter said. “We cannot offer an opinion on SWEPCO’s proposed route changes until we’ve seen the alignment in detail.”

The National Park Service (NPS) letter also said the apparent willingness of SWEPCO to explore the possibility of amending SWEPCO preferred Route 33 is welcomed.

“The newly proposed route, based only on the information in the petition, would appear to address some of our concerns. We believe there is an opportunity for SWEPCO and NPS to find a solution together.” Earlier in the letter, the NPS said that it doesn’t take any position for or against the project as a whole. Its sole concern is the resources of the Park.

SWEPCO failed to even consult with the NPS prior to selecting Route 33. Considering that, opponents of the powerline project were somewhat disappointed about the recent conciliatory letter from the NPS. Doug Stowe, a member of the Save The Ozarks’ Board of Directors, said the letter is “rather kindly toward SWEPCO considering all the malfeasance the NPS describes having witnessed in the power company’s actual behavior during the application process. What is also apparent in the NPS letter is the gross negligence in the way Burns and MacDonnell, acting on behalf of SWEPCO, handled this case. The letter compares and contrasts the complete absence of consultation between the NPS and SWEPCO and its agents, with the lengthy and complex consultation and negotiation required for the federal highway expansion currently taking place in the same area of the park.”

Stowe also pointed out that when the attorneys for SWEPCO claimed that it would take an unlikely act of Congress for any of the boundaries of the park to be expanded into the planned acquisition areas, they displayed a complete ignorance of how those expansion lands are acquired.

“It’s not by an act of Congress that park boundaries are grown, but is instead an ongoing process of land purchases that take place when properties come on the market,” he said. “While SWEPCO attorneys had chastised the NPS for not having testified in the hearing and for not taking part in the process except through public comments, the NPS letter carefully explained that it is not department policy to have National Park employees take the stand, nor should it be.”

Stowe said one would think that professional attorneys working for SWEPCO and its allies would have known a bit more about how to engage in complex negotiations with the NPS, or at least would understand the necessity of doing so at the earliest possible time in the planning process.

“As a result, the attorneys for SWEPCO, assisted by professional planning firm Burns and MacDonnell, completely botched the application process, causing great personal stress to landowners throughout the region,” Stowe said. “Only time will tell whether the APSC will allow SWEPCO’s petition for a limited rehearing. But any thinking person would be led to ask, ‘How bad does a proposal need to be before the APSC sees the stupidity of it and pulls the plug?’”

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