North County Times

April 21, 2006

Activist on final leg of 80-mile desert walk

By: DAVE DOWNEY - Staff Writer

ANZA-BORREGO DESERT STATE PARK ---- Kelly Fuller's 10-day, 80-mile trek across the backcountry of San Diego and Imperial counties hasn't exactly been a cakewalk.

On day three of her tour along a preferred route for San Diego Gas & Electric Co.'s proposed $1.4 billion Sunrise Powerlink transmission line, Fuller sweated out 92-degree temperatures. On day four, she encountered a sandstorm.

But today is the 10th and final day, and the 44-year-old Alpine woman is poised to wrap up the trek at Warner Springs, site of a proposed substation. Fuller, a third-generation Southern Californian and passionate speaker and blogger, is fighting the Sunrise project for the San Diego and Imperial Counties Chapter of the Sierra Club.

SDG&E is proposing to string 500-kilovolt wires from metallic towers 160 feet tall between Imperial Valley and Warner Springs, and a 230-kilovolt line between Warner Springs and Carmel Valley. The latter would run through Ramona and Rancho Penasquitos. The California Public Utilities Commission is expected to rule on the project in 2007.

Fuller's walk was designed to draw attention to the project and to survey the power transmission line's proposed route for the environmental groups.

Proponents of the proposed transmission line, including a group of business owners, called Fuller's journey misguided and said the transmission line could actually help the environment by transmitting cleaner power.

Early on, it became painfully clear she would not be able to carry all necessary supplies, as the little bones in the lower part of her left leg screamed under the 40-pound weight of her backpack. Fuller broke the leg three years ago in a tumble down a dry waterfall in Arizona, and it is held together by a metal plate and 11 screws.

"It's one thing when your muscles hurt, but it's another thing when your bones hurt," she said. "When your bones hurt, you know you're messing with something that you shouldn't be messing with."

With a lighter load, Fuller walked 6.4 miles Wednesday through Grapevine Canyon in the west end of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the nation's largest contiguous state park.

She started her day at Angelina Springs, rolling up the sleeping bag she spread out the night before along a sandy wash sandwiched between a 40-foot cottonwood tree and a row of thick, 8-foot-tall sugarbushes. After tracing the trail of an existing 69-kilovolt line through a maze of willow, mesquite, sugarbush and juniper home to rabbits, coyotes, hawks, eagles, owls and wild turkeys, Fuller wrapped up day nine when she reached Ranchita.

She hiked beneath a cloudless and breezy blue sky that contrasted with fresh green leaves of shrubs and blooming wildflowers that painted the landscape yellow, white and purple.

Wearing a gray fishing hat and red bandana, Fuller strode through the canyon with a walking stick and yellow umbrella, pausing often to record observations in a notebook and on her low-budget digital camera.

"I'm not a biologist," she said. "I haven't been out here doing biological studies. Who I am is a concerned citizen, and what I have been doing is taking note of what condition the land is in."

Fuller said she wants to compare notes when SDG&E files this summer its analysis of the project's environmental impacts.

"This could very well be one of the flash points of the debate," Fuller said of the scenic canyon.

Stephanie Donovan, an SDG&E spokeswoman, said the utility welcomes Fuller's observations. At the same time, she stressed that SDG&E's environmental consultants have been out in the field studying impacts for eight months.

"We have walked, driven and flown the entire route," she said. "We offered to have one of our environmental experts go with Kelly on the route, and she flatly refused."

Fuller, who had put out an invitation beforehand for SDG&E executives to join her, was unavailable for comment late Wednesday. David Hogan, urban wildands director for the Center for Biological Diversity and tour organizer, defended the decline of the utility's offer.

"Those invitations went to SDG&E executives for a reason," Hogan said. "We wanted the people who will be making the final decision to harm the desert with this power line to actually experience the area that will be impacted. That invitation was not sent to SDG&E's hired gun."

Meanwhile, a statewide business coalition that supports the project termed Fuller's opposition misplaced.

"It's ironic that an environmentalist would be protesting the Sunrise Powerlink given that this transmission line is designed to bring clean, environmentally friendly, renewable energy ---- sun, wind and geothermal ---- to Californa," said Vince Sollitto, spokesman for Associated Business & Labor for Energy (ABLE).

The business group has said the transmission line will benefit all California energy consumers because the state's power grid is interconnected and it would help reach a 20 percent goal for renewable energy. Fuller called her experience one of her best.

Along the way, she found seashells deposited by an ancient sea, broken pieces of pottery left behind by an ancient native people and a 15-mile-long undisturbed section of desert in Imperial County where there is no power line. Donovan said that section has been disturbed by off-road vehicle activity.

Fuller said she also found that Anza-Borrego visitors were largely opposed to the project.

"They're just horrified," said Fuller. "There isn't anyone who I've met who believes that there should be an industrialized electrical corridor through the park."

She noted that the 69-kilovolt line through Grapevine Canyon straddles a narrow corridor between two state-protected preserves: Pinyon Ridge Wilderness to the north and Grapevine Mountain Wilderness to the south.

"You don't hear it. You can ignore it," she said of the existing line strung from 50-foot wooden poles. "And it doesn't make that much of a visual impact. The Sunrise Powerlink is a completely different story."

Contact staff writer Dave Downey at (760) 740-5442 or ddowney@nctimes.com. Http://nctimes.com/articles/2006/04/20/news/top_stories/15_44_494_19_06.txt