November/December 2005

EarthScope Plate Boundary Observatory GPS and Strainmeter Site Permitting: A Perspective Two Years into the Construction Phase

Careful site selection is critical in order to maximize scientific benefit from large, geographically dispersed instrumentation networks. While scientific goals drive the planning process, the practical realities of land-use permitting force compromises during the process of building a network. Changes in the past few years, including strict enforcement of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and increased federal, state, and municipal regulations, make gaining land-use permits for large science projects increasingly difficult, requiring greater willingness to compromise between scientific goals and permit reality.

EarthScope is a National Science Foundation (NSF) initiative designed to explore the structure and evolution of the North American continent and quantify the physical processes controlling earthquakes and volcanoes. To meet the project’s scientific goals, EarthScope will deploy several thousand seismic instruments (USArray), 875 GPS instruments, up to 175 borehole strainmeter (Plate Boundary Observatory, PBO) instruments across the U.S. and drill a 3.2-km borehole into the San Andreas Fault (SAFOD). The broad geographic distribution of stations, combined with a strict budget and five-year construction timeline, means that acquisition of land-use permits in a timely and cost-effective fashion is critical to project success.

The Plate Boundary Observatory element of EarthScope is being constructed by UNAVCO, of Boulder, Colorado. To meet the project timeline of building the network in five years, UNAVCO established five regional offices around the western U.S. with centralized permitting staff located in Boulder. Each regional office is responsible for starting from potential station areas that were selected based on scientific goals established by the EarthScope community and identifying suitable sites in those regions. We have found that a scientifically and practically viable potential site can best be identified starting with a few hours of office Geographic Information Systems (GIS) reconnaissance. Once the GIS work has identified particularly promising areas for further exploration, typically two days of fieldwork are required to pin down the final target site. At that point, the entertaining work of permitting begins.

The PBO has a full-time permitting staff of three people dedicated to land-use permit issues. Once regional staff have settled on a location for a given site, the permitting staff take the reconnaissance report and landowner information and prepare a permit application for submission to the landowner. So far, the project has dealt with three categories of landowners: private and corporate landowners, city/county/state organizations, and federal agencies. Private and corporate landowners are the easiest to deal with; they can also be the most expensive, however, with lease rates per site ranging between free and $9,000 for a long-term (12–17 years) agreement. The processing time on these permits is usually very quick, and many landowners are excited to participate in the project. There is a risk of landowners asking us to remove the site if the property is sold.

If a suitable site cannot be found on private land, PBO works with city, county, state, and federal government agencies to secure permits. City, county, and state agencies are typically very time-consuming to deal with and can also be expensive. These agencies have review processes that range from the mayor signing a simple agreement, to county boards of supervisors having multiple sessions to approve the lease. State agencies may require archaeological and biological surveys as well. Overall, we plan on three to six months to process these agreements. Federal agencies, while willing to work with us at a high level, often are limited by very decentralized bureaucracies (particularly in the cases of the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and Forest Service) and are bound by rules and regulations, such as NEPA, that require Environmental Assessments (EA’s) and/or Environmental Impact Statements (EIS’s). Such factors can make these permits drag on for a year or more and greatly increase cost. Typically we are not required to pay site lease payments, but we are liable for agency cost recovery (repaying the federal agency for time spent working on the project) and covering the salaries of specialists to review the application. In addition, required Environmental Assessment documents and cultural and biological surveys costs can push the cost of these permits to well over $6,000 per site.

It is also fair to say that no two sites will have the same permit issues. PBO permitting staff respond to a myriad of questions and requests for land surveys, corporate documents, memorandums of understanding , fee schedules, and data access. Researchers who are preparing proposals for projects that are widely distributed across numerous jurisdictions, even if low impact in their eyes, should be prepared to deal with land- use permitting. Due to the construction boom for cell towers, fiber optic lines, and microwave towers over the last 20 years, educated private landowners know they can be generously compensated for land access, and federal, state, and municipal entities oft en do not discriminate between science for the greater good and for-profit organizations. Researchers should be prepared to bring federal and state agencies into the loop early (preproposal) so they understand the cost and time implications associated with gaining land-use permission. If and when the project is funded, researches should be prepared to go mano a mano with each agency over each and every permit. A system for tracking permit status, renewal clauses, and landowner information should be in place at the very beginning of any large project. Many landowners will ask for liability insurance for each site in the amount of $2,000,000. Also, many federal and state agencies will ask that a construction and deconstruction performance bond be posted. For planning purposes, PBO budgeted $5,000 per GPS and strainmeter site to cover one-time payments to private landowners, consultant costs associated with preparing EIS and EA packages, and application and recurring fees. At the end of year two, we are under budget on a per-site basis. As we move into year three and beyond we anticipate permitting will become more difficult, and we hope we can contain costs.

In today’s world of superfluous litigation, a “not on my land” attitude, and unrelenting pressure from environmental groups on federal agencies to adhere to the letter of the law, do not expect a warm reaction from many landowners. Science priority means little to a bureaucrat stuck behind a desk in some remote government field office. Taking time to involve these people in the project by educating them about the scientific benefits and goals, asking them where a good location might be, and being willing to pay any fees or fixed costs without debate will go a long way to getting your site built. Keeping your site clean during and after construction, not starting any fires, generally being a good tenant, and keeping agency personnel informed of the science results of the project will help make scientific permitting easier for the next generation.

Dr. Mike E. Jackson, Director
Plate Boundary Observatory

Kyle R. Bohnenstiehl, Permit Manager
Plate Boundary Observatory

For additional information about the EarthScope project, visit http://www.earthscope.org/. For detailed information about the Plate Boundary Observatory, visit http://pboweb.unavco. org/. You may contact the PBO Permitting Manager at KyleB@unavco.org or the PBO director at Jackson@unavco.org.

To send a letter to the editor regarding this opinion or to write your own opinion, contact the SRL editor by e-mail.



Posted: 15 December 2005