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Home arrow Historic Preservation Programs & Officers arrow Federal arrow U.S. Forest Service arrowACHP Comments on the Proposed Telephone Flat Geothermal Project, CA
ACHP Comments on the Proposed Telephone Flat Geothermal Project, CA

The following are the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation's formal comments transmitted to the Secretary of Agriculture on the proposed Telephone Flat Geothermal Project in California. For information on the case, see the Fall 2002 Case Digest.

September 27, 2002

Dear Secretary Veneman:

In accordance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and implementing regulations "Protection of Historic Properties" (36 CFR Part 800), I am writing to convey to you the final comments of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) on the proposed Telephone Flat Geothermal Project on the Modoc National Forest, California.


The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sold a number of leases for geothermal exploration and development in the Medicine Lake Highlands in the 1980s. The ACHP first became involved in consultation on the Telephone Flat Project in August 1999, when the U.S. Forest Service notified us of its determination that two proposed geothermal projects, Telephone Flat and the Fourmile Hill Project, may adversely affect historic properties in the Medicine Lake Highlands. Consultation in 1999 and 2000 resulted in our execution of a Memorandum of Agreement with the BLM, Forest Service, and California State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) for the Fourmile Hill Project just prior to the May 2000 Record of Decision. At that point, the understanding was that the Telephone Flat Project would not be approved.

BLM re-initiated consultation, regarding the Telephone Flat Project, with ACHP and other parties in April 2002 in response to a settlement reached between the Department of Justice and the CalEnergy Corporation. The settlement agreement required BLM and the Forest Service to reconsider their joint decision to deny a permit for the development and operation of the Telephone Flat Project. The purpose of consultation, as required in the Council's regulations, is to seek ways to avoid, minimize or mitigate the adverse effects of a proposed undertaking on historic properties. Of critical concern in this case is the effect of the project on the Medicine Lake Highlands Traditional Cultural Places (TCP) district, a property determined to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. In order to meet a November 1, 2002 deadline imposed by the settlement agreement, and despite requests by the three participating Indian tribes to continue with consultation to resolve adverse effects, BLM terminated consultation and requested ACHP comments on August 16, 2002.

To respond to this schedule, I appointed a panel of Council members to consider this case. The panel consisted of Bruce D. Judd, Emily Summers, and Kelly Sinclair, representing the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. On September 16, 2002, the Council members met with representatives of BLM, the Forest Service, the California State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), tribal officials, and Calpine Corporation officials to tour the project site. That evening the Council members conducted a public meeting and received testimony from concerned tribal government officials, organizations and individuals. The comments and recommendations that follow are based on consideration by ACHP of the facts in this case and the review and deliberations of this member panel.

Findings and Recommendations

The Medicine Lake Highlands contains an interrelated series of locations and natural features associated with the spiritual beliefs and traditional cultural practices of the Pit River and Klamath/Modoc Indian tribes. For centuries, the area has been vitally important to the culture of these two tribes as a place for physical healing, prayer, spirit quests and other traditional activities. These cultural values and practices by the tribes depend entirely on maintaining within the district the environmental qualities that now exist, including natural land forms, heavy forested cover, scenic vistas, and a natural quiet that reinforces a sense of solitude and contemplation. The Pit River Tribal Chairman, in a recent letter to the Council, emphasized the natural qualities needed for continued use of the traditional cultural places within the Medicine Lake district. In her determination of eligibility, the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places noted the unique nature of the area in relationship to important traditional spiritual activities and practices, noting that "...multiple lines of evidence substantiate the historic and continuing value of the Medicine Lake area and the volcanic caldera it rests in to Native Americans in maintaining their traditional cultural identity."

The proposal under reconsideration is the construction and operation of a 48-megawatt power plant and associated wells, pipelines, and power lines. The proposed power plant would be the tallest building in the northeastern part of California and would be located only two miles from Medicine Lake, the central feature of the TCP district. A well field, pipeline system, and associated access roads would encircle the power plant. Within the 8 square mile lease area for this project, there would be a minimum of 10-12 well pads, 3-5 acres each, to extract or inject geothermal fluids; each well pad having its own 500,000 to 1,000,000 gallon sump pond. The project would also require several miles of 36" above ground high-pressured pipelines to transport hot geothermal fluid to the power plant, and a 4 mile-long 230kV transmission line to transport generated electricity to existing lines. This transmission line would pass north, then northeast of the project, between two important mountains for Native American religious and cultural activity. The transmission line, power plant facilities, and cooling tower plumes would be visible from vision quest sites in the TCP district, and the power plant would be lighted 24 hours, seven days a week. The impact of these visual intrusions on Native American cultural use of the area and the increased noise caused by construction, drilling, and well testing are highlighted in the Final Environmental Impact Statement.

In your agency's own words, the permit was denied in May 2002, in part, because "development of the subsurface geothermal waters would adversely affect the Native American perception of the spiritual qualities of Medicine Lake" and construction and operation of the project would introduce visual and audible impacts that "will significantly degrade the current value of the cultural sites to the Native American practitioner." Public comments received by ACHP in writing and at the public hearing overwhelmingly oppose the development of this project. The ACHP believes that the visual and audible impacts on traditional cultural use of the Medicine Lake Highlands TCP district will be quite severe and will significantly and irreversibly diminish the characteristics that qualify this area for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

The ACHP acknowledges the merit of renewable energy and inherent value in geothermal energy production in meeting our nation's energy needs. However, the proposed site for the Telephone Flat project is wrong; the costs to the historic resources of Native Americans and our nation are too high. The ACHP hereby recommends that you support the joint decision made by BLM and the Forest Service in May 2000 and reaffirm the denial of permits to construct and operate the Telephone Flat project.

We further recommend that BLM and Forest Service immediately initiate discussions with ACHP to seek ways to better assess and consider the historic values, including traditional cultural values, associated with lands that may be opened to leasing for energy development. The current system of conducting Section 106 review at the point of authorizing specific projects, after leases have already been issued, puts decision makers and citizens concerned with historic preservation at a disadvantage by failing to provide them information that would alert them, in a more timely manner, to potential conflicts such as those that arose in the Medicine Lake Highlands. These difficulties are particularly acute when leases provide developers with reserved property rights to develop and utilize natural resources and the leased lands contain historic properties that are large in size. Our staff is anxious to work with your department to resolve this ongoing problem.

In accordance with Section 106, you and the Secretary of the Interior, in reaching a joint decision on the permit for the Telephone Flat project, must take into account these comments of the Council. In accordance with Section 110(l) of the NHPA and the Section 106 implementing regulations, this responsibility cannot be delegated. Moreover, your response to the Council's comments must be documented in accordance with 36 C.F.R. § 800.7(c)(4). A similar letter has been sent to Secretary Gale Norton.


John L. Nau, III

cc: Honorable Gale Norton, Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior

Updated November 8, 2002

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