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DODGEVILLE, Wis. (AP) - The combines and balers are idle but the grain and hay wagons have found new purpose as winter descends on the Driftless Area.

Normally, at this time of the year, the wagons are out of sight and stored in pole barns, machine sheds or other out buildings. Only now, they're helping farmers along Highway 18-151 advocate.

This isn't about falling soybean or milk prices, access to foreign markets or the heavy rains that wiped out some crops and hastened the harvest.

The wagons are props for sheets of plywood turned into signs that tell passing motorists their thoughts on a proposed high-voltage power line that would run from the Cardinal substation in the town of Middleton to the Hickory Creek substation near Dubuque, Iowa.

None of the signs favor the $500 million project being proposed by a trio of utility companies.

"To win anything, you need to win in the court of public opinion, which is why we put up the signs and why we try to educate people," said Lea Dolan-Stroncek, president of Driftless Defenders, one of several organized opposition groups to the project. "A lot of people don't understand what it means."

There are two possible routes for the 345-kilovolt Cardinal-Hickory Creek Transmission Line, which would be supported by towers ranging in height from 120 to 175 feet, according to an application filed with the state earlier this year by American Transmission Co. of Pewaukee, ITC Midwest of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Dairyland Power Cooperative of La Crosse.

The preferred location is a 102-mile route that would largely follow existing transmission lines and highways, including Highway 18-151 between Mount Horeb and Dodgeville and Highway 18 between Dodgeville and Montfort, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

The alternate route would be primarily parallel to the preferred route by running west from just south of Cross Plains, skirting the northern edge of Governor Dodge State Park and angling to the southwest toward Montfort, all while cutting through rolling farmland.

"We understand that people have comments about the change that would happen if the line was to be built and that is why whenever we're proposing a new line we look to site it as much as possible with existing infrastructure," said Kaya Freiman, an ATC spokeswoman. "Right now there are lower voltage transmission lines (along) the highway so it would be different and the poles would be taller than the transmission lines that are existing."

The Public Service Commission accepted the application from the utilities in early October, which triggered a 180-day review period. The U.S. Department of Agriculture last week issued a 466-page environmental review of the project and will hold six public meetings in January to collect comments. The line will require permits from at least two federal agencies. The PSC will determine if it is needed and which route it should follow. ATC expects a decision sometime in 2019.

The utility companies say the project, which they want operational by 2023, could provide Wisconsin customers with "net economic benefits" of between $23.5 million and $350 million over its expected 40-year life. The Midcontinent Independent System Operator, the regional electric grid operator, has endorsed the project as one of 17 across the region that will improve the reliability of the electric system, provide economic benefits to utilities and consumers, and support the use of renewable energy by delivering low-cost wind energy from Iowa to population centers where the power is needed.

"Those drivers have not changed for the project. Those have been consistent since the project was announced," Freiman said.

Opponents say the line is not needed and would damage important conservation areas, disrupt the scenic beauty and harm agricultural businesses dotted along the routes. They argue Wisconsin consumers would be better served by energy efficiency and local renewable-energy projects. And they have no desire to advocate for one route at the expense of those along the other.

"Hopefully they will just decide that this is a bad idea since it's the Driftless Area and it's beautiful and we need places to grow food and for people to come and recharge themselves," said Dolan-Stroncek, whose Seven Seeds Farm, established in 1872, is along the alternate route. "We're doing everything we can to stop this."

The project has been the topic of community meetings and forums at diverse locations like the Madison Marriott West hotel, the Dodger Bowl in Dodgeville, rural town halls, diners and roadside taverns. One of the first meetings was in 2014, when about 70 people crammed into the Seven Seeds Farm Store in the lower level of the barn that normally is used to sell certified organic pork, chicken and grass-fed beef from Australian Murray Grey cattle.

"All the neighbors showed up," said Dolan-Strocek's son, Mike Dolan, the seventh generation farming the land along Highway Z just north of the Pleasant Ridge Store. "It was an event."

Dolan, 25, lives with his fiancee in a house on the farm that was originally built as a granary. The barn's limestone foundation was quarried from the nearby hills and square nails were used in its construction. Today, Dolan's family owns 250 acres, rents another 250 acres. Beef from the farm is sold to restaurants like Brasserie V, Mint Mark and Osteria Papavero in Madison and Freddy Valentine's in Spring Green. Berkshire pigs, fed with whey from Uplands Cheese Co. to the west, are sold, whole carcass, to restaurants in Minneapolis, Chicago, Madison and Milwaukee.

The alternate route for the power line would run right along Highway Z just yards from their farm.

"It would mean a high decrease in land value," said Dolan, a University of Iowa graduate. "The biggest thing my parents and I are worried about is agritourism. We have people driving up from Chicago specifically to visit our farm, and they come here as a destination. I think the towers would ruin that."

Over at Uplands Cheese, Andy Hatch makes cheese from his cows that graze on the land around his farm that was established in 1919. As 8,000, 10-pound wheels of his Pleasant Ridge Reserve age in a cooler at his production facility on the farm, Hatch worries about the landscape that could be altered with the transmission lines and looming towers.

Hatch, one of the most decorated cheesemakers in the world, and who is done for the season making his highly heralded Rush Creek Reserve, named after a nearby creek, brings in busloads of foodies from around the country every year to tour his farm, sip Spotted Cow and sample his creations on a patio overlooking his pasture.

"These are cheese professionals and chefs and they think they're coming to the Napa Valley of cheese making," Hatch said. "They drive around and they're charmed by the area. They eat at Bob's (Bitchin' BBQ in Dodgeville), they stay at the Don Q (Inn). They feel like they're in the heart of it all. And the towers will destroy that."

Hatch has financing approved and blueprints drawn for a more than $2 million expansion but is waiting to see which route is approved by the PSC. If it's the alternate route, which would go over his house and skirt his pasture, Hatch said moving his farm would have to be one consideration.

"The character of our cheese ... is wholly dependent on this farm and the characteristics of the soil," Hatch said while standing in his pasture surrounded by his curious livestock. "So to change that or to think you can move it changes everything. We're very vulnerable in that sense."

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At a farm established in the 1920s by Charles Lloyd Jones along what is now Highway 23, Paul Gaynor has transformed the property into White Oak Savanna, an event business that caters to weddings, corporate outings and other large parties. In August, the business, established in 2017, will host a folk music festival.

Gaynor, an attorney from Chicago who discovered the Driftless Area in the 1980s while at UW-Madison, has restored the 90-year-old barn and farmhouse and has constructed a 4,000-square-foot building that houses a large commercial kitchen, bathrooms and dressing rooms for brides and grooms.

Gaynor and his wife, Audrey, first purchased property and built a house to the east in 1995 but in 2006 purchased their current property and began restoring the prairies and oak savanna and dug what turned out to be a spring-fed pond. Paul Gaynor, who has been on the board of directors of American Players Theatre for 15 years, sees the corridor between Mineral Point and Spring Green as a jewel and one of the reasons he fell in love with the landscape that also holds gems like Pendarvis, Shake Rag Alley, House on the Rock, Taliesin and Governor Dodge State Park.

"We've all invested in this community," Gaynor said. "This area is the jewel in the crown of the state of Wisconsin and you are not going to make people come here with towers. You're going to make people come here, which is what we need, with great cheese and great meat and an event space and a festival and hiking and biking and canoeing."

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