Why is the Cardinal-Hickory Creek Project Controversial?

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation. (5th Amendment of the United States’ Constitution)

Over the last year during trips to Spring Green or Madison, WI, I’ve noticed multiple signs with the letters ATC circled out like a No Smoking Sign. Looking closely at some of them, I noticed that the T is designed to look like an electric power line. The signs have been very effective at getting my attention, but what exactly is ATC and why do some want it banned?

The protest signs referred me to the website www.driftlessdefenders.com, which I found out is run by one of the two primary grassroot organizations leading the fight against the proposed Cardinal Hickory-Creek (CHC) line that the the American Transmission Company wants to install. So that’s what is being protested, but as I know very little about the why, it’s time to dig deeper.

What is ATC and the Cardinal Hickory-Creek Line?

ATC stands for the American Transmission Company, which is a Wisconsin-based utility company that focuses solely on transmission of electric power. Two other companies have also filed paperwork with the state of Wisconsin to install the transmission lines.

ATC’s website notes, “our transmission system allows energy producers to transport electric power from where it’s generated to where it’s needed.” ATC is in the business of installing infrastructure (i.e., lines and towers) that allow energy producers to export their product to other parts of the country.

In this specific case, ATC has asked the state of Wisconsin to grant them a license to install a high capacity, 345kV transmission line that will run 125 miles between the Cardinal substation in Middleton, WI to the Hickory Creek substation in Dubuque County, IA. Larger than traditional power lines, the transmission towers would be 17 stories tall.

ATC’s main focus is on the installation and maintenance of infrastructure that allows for energy to be moved. ATC is not responsible for the generation of power. ATC is the middleman between energy producers, such as wind turbines, and electric distribution centers, which then sends the power to individual homes and businesses.

The Cardinal-Hickory Creek line is not the first transmission line to be installed in Wisconsin, so part of its purpose would be to extend already existing line further across Wisconsin. Unlike traditional power lines, the transmission lines will simply move power from point A to point B without delivering power into homes along the way. Certainly, this power may eventually be redistributed to individuals homes, but there’s a lot of discussion about whether or not such expansive movement of energy is even needed.

Transmission companies like ATC argue that their lines are much more effective in quickly moving energy, avoiding gridlock, and avoiding power outages across wide areas. Their website suggests that by moving produced energy beyond the local areas in which it is produced, energy consumers are able to reap the benefits of cheaper energy at a wholesale price.

As the United States moves slowly towards renewable energy from coal-based sources, it makes sense that we need to find new ways to transfer energy and update infrastructure, but the installation of transmission lines is not without controversy because some are not certain that transmission lines are the answer.

Current Status of the Project

Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission, a committee made of three bureaucrats appointed by governor Scott Walker, will make the final determination before the project is allowed to go forward, but the odds appear to be against the grassroot opposition. If approved, construction is scheduled to being in 2023. As of October 5, 2018, the three member group had determined that ATC’s application was complete and that the formal review process would begin.

Prior to that, the Commission has reviewed ATC’s first application and offered suggestions for changes ATC needs to make before the application will be approved. The public was invited to make comments before the Commission, and the municipalities who have created resolutions opposing the project formally submitted their complaints.

Why is the Transmission Line Considered Controversial?

Despite environmental concerns, ATC and other interested parties believe that the pros—improved electric system reliability, economic benefits for companies and consumers, and a great distribution and use of renewable energy—outweigh the cons.

Two grassroot organizations, Driftless Defenders and Driftless Area Land Conservancy, are leading the opposition to the installation of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission lines in this area. Driftless Land Area Conservancy (DLAC)’s slogan is “Keep the Driftless area from going back in time” (http://driftlessconservancy.org/protect-the-driftless/), and according to this organization, the following are reasons why the powerlines should not be installed:

  1. Lack of need [ATC’s reasons for installing the lines focus on bringing energy into Wisconsin instead of exporting it as a commodity]

  2. Better alternatives

  3. Non-compliance with Wisconsin statutes

  4. Visually unappealing

  5. Lower property values

  6. Environmental damage

The Driftless Area of Wisconsin is unique because, unlike other areas of Wisconsin, it was unaffected by glaciers, which distributed clay, sand, gravel, and other sediments throughout the state as well as flattening much of the landscape. Basically, it’s an example of what Wisconsin’s landscape and soil were like prior to the Glacial Period, and many do not want the area’s prairies, groves, forests, and wetlands disturbed by unnecessary industrial developments.

Opponents to the CHC argue that the tall towers would disrupt the aesthetic appeal of the Driftless Area, which is of less concern to how the installation and maintenance of the towers would disturb natural habitats and harm conservation efforts to protect a diverse environment. Those opposed to the line argue that the conservational value of this area is worth more than any of the economic benefits or energy efficiency the transmission lines would provide.

Those opposed also believe that ATC’s claim of electric bill savings is not substantiated. No one is opposed to cheaper energy, but that does not appear to be the case, at least not in the immediate future. The Wisconsin Journal Sentinel notes that utility consumers will be responsible for about 15% of total costs. This would be levied on monthly electric bills. If the lines are installed, utility consumers would still be responsible for paying for the installation and maintenance of the lines through a tax that would be added to monthly electricity bills. No consumer wants to be paying for needless services. The estimated cost of installing the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line is estimated at $500,000,000, and the leading companies have promised investors a 10% return on investment.

While protesters do point out these other reasons, the argument against the towers appears to be founded in ownership of the land that will be used. The most likely path is one that would follow highway 18/151 when possible, running from Middleton to Monfort and then cutting south towards Iowa. Installing the towers will require ATC to acquire land, either through an outright purchase or through eminent domain. This is because The ATC lines are separate from traditional power lines and thus do not follow those same paths because these lines do not need to reach individual homes; they just need to go from the energy source to the energy distribution center, so ideally, the installation would follow the shortest path.This means that ATC needs to acquire land for its development.

The Role of Eminent Domain

By purchasing an easement from landowners, ATC would control that section of land and would be able to use the land for whatever purposes they determine, whether its installing the transmission lines as predicted or installing underground pipes. The possibilities are endless, and the landowners who would be forced to give up their land have no say on what is done, potentially leaving their surrounding land vulnerable to environmental hazards.

In order to move the project forward, ATC has contacted landowners to purchase land outright. The price offered is based on ATC’s assessment of a fair market value. If the landowners refuse to sell, ATC may still be able to acquire the land through eminent domain. Per the 5th Amendment, the governments of the United States may turn privately owned land into public land as long as the land owners are justly compensated.

In many cases, land used to establish utilities typically qualifies as an essential need for the acquisition of private land for state-sponsored purposes. When this is done, it is called eminent domain.

Simply refusing to grant the easement does not force the transmission line to be moved. Instead, ATC can ask the State of Wisconsin to enact eminent domain, which allows the government to turn private lands into public entities. Even though energy companies are not run by the state governments, utilities and public places (i.e., parks, library, public schools) fall under acceptable uses of eminent domain.

If the Wisconsin government approves the line and enacts eminent domain, there is little landowners can do to protest the takeover of their land, although some lawsuits have been successful in showing that the land’s usage does not fall within “public use.” As discussed earlier, ATC is acting as a middleman, focusing solely on transporting energy from one source of energy to a distribution area. ATC is not acting as the utility company that is bringing energy into a home or business, so there may be some room for interpretation as to whether the ATC transmission lines fully qualify as a public usage eligible for eminent domain. However, this seems unlikely since other transmission lines have been approved for eminent domain, but those opposed hope that their message of “no eminent domain for private gain” will make a difference.

Landowners run the risk of losing out on funds by refusing to sell to the company who may offer higher payments than the land’s assessed fair market value. In both situations, the landowner is technically compensated, but fair market value is not necessarily what the land would sell for in today’s real estate market. One anonymous landowner told me, “As with any project like this, landowners are offered what the ATC [and then the State of Wisconsin] feels to be fair market value for their property. Fair market value and what we could get for our property are two different things, and they do not see the difference.” Others fear that having the transmission lines near their land will also cause their property values to fall, making it hard to sell in the future.

Opponents of using eminent domain for installing transmission lines believe that there would be more community support if, as Racheter notes,  “instead of trying to use eminent domain or the threat of its use to acquire land for a new line, they should have worked out deals with firms to erect taller transmission towers above existing utility corridors.” This would also suggest a greater partnership between the transmission company and the utility company that distributes energy.


ATC has been installing transmission lines through Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan since 2001, and my research revealed that the Cardinal Hickory Creek line is not the first transmission line to be protested in Wisconsin. The Badger Coulee line that runs from LaCrosse to Middleton, WI was also hotly contested, but it’s currently under construction (and the Cardinal Hickory Creek would be an extension of that line). For Wisconsin, transmission lines have been given the go-ahead in nearly all cases, but some other states have questioned if eminent domain is appropriate. For example, New York’s governor Pataki signed a bill to restrict the use of eminent domain for building high power transmission lines in 2006. A Montana judge ruled against the use of eminent domain in 2010, and in 2017, Iowa’s courts also ruled against a line that would have taken energy between Iowa and Illinois. All of this indicates that there is no set formula for determining if eminent domain is appropriate to use during the construction of high power transmission systems.

Because of the vocalness of the grassroot protest efforts, the Iowa County Board of Supervisors, Mount Horeb School District, Barneveld School District, Dane County Board of Supervisors, the towns of Belmont, Dodgeville, Lima, Springdale, Wingdale, Wyoming, and Monfort, and the villages of Mount Horeb and Spring Green have passed motions to oppose the installation of the transmission lines near their land. Despite these resolutions, it still seems very likely that the Cardinal Hickory Creek line will move forward just like the Badger Coulee line, although it is possible that the resolutions will influence the final path that the transmission line takes.

Overall, this is a fascinating study of state vs. individual rights, of industry vs. conservation, of the competing visions for Wisconsin’s future, and all of this is complicated. To quote the Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, “Wisconsin’s newest power-line proposal pits a pair of green interests: those who see the project as a blight on the picturesque ridges and valleys of the region and those who say it opens up a new route for renewable wind energy from other states.” The installation of transmission lines and and other new infrastructure projects, like the installation of oil pipelines, show the grey areas between the rights between public and private entities, the challenges between progress and preservation, and the questions surrounding facts and “what ifs.” Eminent domain and land ownership will continue to be an issue of contention in the United States—each situation asks us to determine when the needs/wants of the many outweigh the needs/wants of the few.

In a situation like this, it is also difficult to know how many support the construction of the transmission lines and the use of eminent domain. It is very unlikely that anyone in the affected area would have a pro-ATC sign, so it is difficult know how many outside of ATC employees support the proposed development. That said, what is certain is that, if the grassroot protesters hope to stop ATC, they must continue to be vocal about why ATC is a poor business decision for Wisconsin.

For those whose land will be affected this is a personal assault against the life and lands they’ve cultivated. “At some point, I will probably be laying in front of a bulldozer just to prove a point” said one landowner. ATC plans to install two or three poles on their farmland.

If you wish to learn more about the Protect the Driftless grassroots movement or get involved, be sure to check out www.driftlessdefenders.com. Time will only tell if the State of Wisconsin will take the concerns of the protesters seriously, but history has shown before that a small group of extremely dedicated people can change the course of history… or in this case, preserve historical landscapes.