Chapter 1: Background and Genesis of the Concept

For most of each year I live in the heart of one of America’s great environmental treasures.  That gem is the San Pedro River Valley of southeastern Arizona.  My small, rural community lies in what is arguably the wildest and most scenic part of it.

San Pedro River Valley in Arizona (Photo by Richard Henderson)

The area’s environmental attributes are superlative, including the highest diversity of mammal species anywhere in the United States and one of the nation’s largest bird migration corridors, with over 300 species of birds having been documented in the Valley.[1] In addition to many of the mammal species seen elsewhere in the country, this area is also home to species seldom seen this far north, such as coatis, javelina, ringtails and occasionally even ocelots and jaguars.

In recognition of the ecological uniqueness of this remarkable area, the San Pedro River Valley has been a cover feature in National Geographic magazine and The Nature Conservancy has designated it “One of America’s 10 Last Great Places.”[2], [3]

The roughly 30-mile-long section of the San Pedro River Valley I call home is overlooked by Saguaro National Park.  It includes large portions of the Coronado National Forest, four federally designated Wilderness Areas, one of The Nature Conservancy’s largest U.S. preserves and numerous environmental mitigation areas and conservation easements.  Most recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed a National Wildlife Refuge here.

Many in my small community have spent years, and in some cases decades, working to help conserve this irreplaceable national treasure.  Much of that work has been a labor of love done on a volunteer basis.

Against this background of committed conservation efforts, one can imagine the sense of shock when our community was visited several years ago by a man representing an electrical infrastructure company.  He explained that his company was proposing to build two 500 kilovolt electric transmission lines that might be routed through our part of the Valley.  These would be among the largest transmission lines built in the United States.

He stated that his purpose in visiting us was to enlist our help in deciding what the best route would be through the Valley.  Now, I expect that he had the best interests of his company in mind and probably thought his efforts would further economic progress by providing jobs and supposedly renewable electricity to Arizona and California.

What we heard though was something closer to, “We’re here to rape your mother, but we’ll try to do it as gently as possible.  Can you help us figure out how to do that?”  We were sickened and angered by the vision of massive transmission towers and cables scarring this unique and irreplaceable landscape that we had worked so hard to help conserve.  As we researched the project, our sense of outrage was compounded by learning that most of the power transmitted by it would likely be fossil-fuel-generated, not renewable as advertised.  It would not so much result in the stated purpose of reducing greenhouse gasses or improving energy security, as in supporting continued growth in the metropolitan areas of Arizona and California.

The genesis of my antipathy to transmission lines that scar wild and scenic landscapes goes back a long way.  When I was a young boy, I visited the family farm in Pennsylvania where my mother had been raised.  From across the decades, the memory is as clear as if it were yesterday.

The farm, located in Big Valley in the Appalachian Mountains of central Pennsylvania, lay in one of the prettiest settings in a state resplendent with such scenes of pastoralism integrated with wildness.  A clear, sparkling trout stream coursed through the bottom of the Valley.  Rising above the stream were fields of corn and grain growing in alternating strips of yellow and green.  On the opposite slope a herd of black and white dairy cows grazed idyllically on verdant grass pastures.  Above the fields and pastures, deciduous forests blanketed the mountain ridges to their summits on both sides of the valley, the sight of which helped to awaken a primordial love of wildness in me that half a century later still burns unabated.

Seared into my memory of this enchanting pastoral scene is also one of sadness and disgust.  A broad, barren scar cut down through the forest on one side of the valley, across the bottom land of my grandparent’s farm and up through the forest on the opposite side.  Not a single tree stood in the cut.  Where a mature, healthy forest had once stood, all that now remained were two massive rows of transmission towers joined by cables, marching like a gargantuan army of robots across the landscape, leaving nothing standing in their passing. 

I thus learned early on of the insult that results when the demands of people in one place determine the sacrifice of place and beauty in another.  Although I couldn’t express it at the time, I knew on some elemental level that it represented power and arrogance, the power to raze great forests, to defile what is wild, to impose our will on the land, all driven by an arrogant demand for a way of life in one place that cares little about consequent exploitation in another.  I recall even then contemplating what this said about our priorities as a society, about our unwillingness to limit our wants so long as the cost is paid elsewhere.

Now, perhaps as near the end of life as I was to the beginning then, I find myself engaged in a struggle to prevent a similarly arrogant demand for a way of life in one place that accepts the consequent defilement of another.

Some months after learning of the transmission line proposal, I was on a bicycle trip across the southwestern deserts, the specter of the impending threat to the wildness and beauty of the Valley still heavy on my mind.  As the highway passed beneath two rows of large transmission lines, a scenario began to occur to me.  The more I contemplated it, the more its various facets began to integrate with each other to strengthen it.  As the concept evolved, I began to realize the extent to which the American people have been lulled into a false sense of security similar to that which existed prior to 9/11.

Most people assume that the experts and authorities to whom they entrust their welfare have a vested interest in living up to that trust.  While this is probably true in most cases, economic and political pressures sometimes compromise that trust.  I believe this to be the case in regard to the national security vulnerabilities described in the following chapters.  Step by step, with one facet building on the previous one, I will develop the case for a scenario that has the very real potential to become the next 9/11.

Following that, various solutions are also presented, although whether we have the collective will to overcome the vested political, economic and personal interests that would be threatened by implementing them remains to be seen.

Finally, I wish to be clear that my concern for the preservation of our remaining wild, untrammeled landscapes from infrastructure development such as transmission lines arises from a somewhat different priority of values than do the energy security concerns of the general public.  However, whether our priority is the preservation of wild landscapes or improving national energy security, I believe we all share a common interest in bringing about fundamental changes to our national electric infrastructure.


[1] Wikipedia, “San Pedro River (Arizona)” May, 2012

[2] Barbara Kingsolver, “The Patience of a Saint, San Pedro River” (National Geographic, April 2007)

[3] The Nature Conservancy, “Last Great Places” Special Issue, May/June 1991


© David Omick and Operation Circuit Breaker, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, as well as photos by the author, provided that full and clear credit is given to David Omick and Operation Circuit Breaker with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.