Developers of the proposed Connelly Lake hydroelectric project must acquire permitting for ground-disturbing activities in the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve before federal agencies will move ahead with licensing of the project.

In a letter released last week in which the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected a request by Alaska Power & Telephone to use a traditional licensing process to develop the project, the agency directed the utility to the state.

“Until the issue of gaining access to conduct studies is resolved and you can document that you will be able to gain access to the project site, I am reluctant to commit limited staff resources to a pre-filing consultation process,” wrote Vince Yearick, director of hydropower licensing for the agency.

State Department of Natural Resources permits would be needed for studies that “could include some ground disturbing activities,” according to the letter.

In denying the traditional licensing process, Yearick said the information in AP&T’s pre-application document and concerns expressed by resource agencies and stakeholders “suggest that the Connelly Lake project has the potential to be controversial and involved complex environmental issues.”

Danny Gonce, AP&T’s power manager in Haines, said company officials haven’t yet met to discuss the company’s next move.

The FERC letter also says that because a number of the project’s primary features would be inside the eagle preserve, “the option of using the right of eminent domain to secure the property rights necessary to construct and operate the project would not be available.”

Connelly Lake itself sits outside the preserve. Its proposed power plant is inside preserve boundaries.

Whether eagle preserve permitting poses a challenge to the project wasn’t clear this week.

In June, the state Division of Parks approved a permit for AP&T for work including a geotechnical survey, water quality, quantity and temperature studies, wetland delineation, fish and wildlife habitat surveys, a botanical survey, cultural resource survey and timber inventory.

AP&T now can seek either an “integrated” or an “alternative” licensing process.

Reasons cited by AP&T for seeking traditional licensing included expediency, a moderate complexity of issues, a low anticipated level of anticipated controversy, little or no impact on the environment and no dispute over studies.

Comments against the traditional licensing process included ones from 25 individuals and from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Haines Borough Mayor Stephanie ScottHaines Borough Assembly, Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Lynn Canal Conservation, Rivers Without Borders, and Alaska Chilkoot Bear Foundation.

“All of the commenters indicate that the complexity of the resource issues and the level of controversy on the project will be high. In addition, FWS, NMFS and Alaska DFG indicate a potential for study disputes,” Yearick wrote.