Into the Wilderness

By John Vanvig | RE Magazine
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Co-ops discuss the challenges and rewards of serving the nation’s parks, forests, and monuments

 

By their very nature, national parks and national forests often share boundaries or even overlap with rural electric service territory.

The 398 places overseen by the U.S. National Park Service, a division of the Department of the Interior, include 59 national parks, 25 battlefield memorials, and four national parkways. The Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service administers 155 national forests, grasslands, and similarly undeveloped, relatively unpopulated areas.

And whether rugged or rolling, they’re predominantly rural, sparsely populated, usually remote from cities, and often well away from even towns or villages. In short, they’re in co-op country.

“These are beautiful, historic places that are really part of every American’s heritage,” notes Mike Ganley, NRECA’s former director of strategic analysis.

Like all proud property owners though, Uncle Sam can be particular about the views or about pruning the trees and keeping right-of-way vegetation under control. Underground service and other specialized arrangements or equipment are frequently required. Co-ops serving in or near national parks or forests have to clear their herbicide use with the park superintendents or forest supervisors, and “tree-trimming is always an interesting issue,” as one co-op manager observes.

But the parks and forests bring campers, anglers, hunters, and sightseers to places that can definitely use the business. Outdoor pursuits are often foundations of these local economies, supporting needed jobs and boosting electric load, even if those loads are sometimes highly seasonal.

“Sure, they can be a mixed bag,” Ganley says. “There might be a lot of line between meters. And sometimes they come with more than their share of rules and regulations. But they’re often essential to the local economy, which makes them important to their communities. And the co-ops are proud to serve them.”

Grand Canyon National Park, Utah | NPS Photo by Michael Quinn

Grand Canyon National Park, Utah

 

The rocky spires and soaring arches of southern Utah produce some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. These vistas have awed visitors for centuries, leading federal officials to declare huge tracts of the region off-limits for development beginning in 1919, when the Grand Canyon and Zion national parks were established.

Other national parks would come later—Bryce Canyon in 1928 and Capitol Reef in 1971—and over the years, additional areas would be declared national monuments, national forest, or roadless wilderness areas.
And in 1939, a rural electric utility now known as Garkane Energy Cooperative based in Loa, Utah, would spring up in the area, too. Carl Albrecht, Garkane’s general manager for the past 22 years and a 40-year employee, says the co-op has learned to find a balance in sharing so much territory with Uncle Sam.

“We serve more national parks than any utility in the country,” Albrecht observes. “Bryce Canyon, Zion, Capitol Reef, and the Grand Canyon on the North Rim, as well as two national monuments and one national recreation area. We also serve three national forests and considerable Bureau of Land Management lands. In fact, over 90 percent of our 16,000-square-mile service territory is controlled by the federal government.”

With so many parks, forests, and other federal facilities counted among its 13,000-odd consumers, Albrecht says, building new lines can be tricky business.

“You can imagine the difficulties we have in obtaining right-of-ways.”

In the end, though, Albrecht sees the tradeoffs as well worth it.

“This place is one of God’s greatest creations,” he says. “It’s a great place to live and to see Mother Nature at her best. But it’s a tough place to be in the power business.”

Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona | NPS Photo / Katy Hooper

Chiricahua National Monument, Arizona

 

Soaring rock formations, remnants of a volcanic eruption nearly 30 million years ago, climb above the desert floor southeast of Willcox, Ariz., in the 12,000-acre Chiricahua National Monument, part of the much larger Coronado National Forest. Peaks in the inactive volcanic Chiricahua Mountain Range rise to more than 9,000 feet, providing a cooling “sky island” effect.

Fewer than 40,000 visitors a year make the 40-mile trek from Willcox to see the spectacular towers and breathtaking balanced-rock formations of this remote desert site, set aside as a monument in 1924 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.

Electric service arrives at the edges of the monument from two states: Willcox-based Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative from the west and Deming, N.M.- based Columbus Electric Cooperative from the east. The stark interior of the monument, however, is reserved for hardy species like coatimundi, deer, javalina, and more than 300 different types of birds.