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Ore. wind developers work with environmentalists

Fri, 07/23/2010 - 11:13am
NATHALIE WEINSTEINAssociated Press

When Pacific Wind Power, a Central Oregon company, decided to build a wind farm 30 miles east of Bend, the father-daughter team developing the project knew it would face opposition from local environmental groups eager to preserve the desert landscape.

But rather than wait for petitions and letters to come rolling in, Sarah Rankin Stahl and her father, John Stahl, decided to take a proactive approach. Even before they started filing permits for the West Butte Wind Power project, they contacted the Oregon Natural Desert Association to find out what compromises could be reached.

"I've lived in Bend for 14 and a half years," Rankin Stahl said. "I knew the local politics and that the Oregon Natural Desert Association had a vested interest in any big development going on in the area. Instead of starting out with an adversarial relationship, why not go in and talk to them?"

As more renewable energy developers take advantage of windy expanses of land in Oregon's eastern deserts, battles increasingly are being waged between developers and conservation groups. Developers want the land with the best wind and sun exposure. For the most part, that land is located near habitats of sage grouse, golden eagles and other wildlife, and environmentalists worry development could harm such areas.

The 104-megawatt West Butte Wind Power project is on the edge of a sage grouse habitat, Stahl said. A century ago, approximately 16 million sage grouse lived in the U.S. Now there are about 200,000.

To lessen the potential impact the wind farm could have on sage grouse, the desert association recommended starting a fund for clearing juniper bushes, another species encroaching on sagebrush.

"When I asked a guy from (the Oregon Department of) Fish and Wildlife what we could do, he said, Kill all those juniper trees,' " Stahl said. "We've been cutting down thousands of acres on our own site and we're putting $1 million into a fund to maintain the public lands."

Though sage grouse are unlikely to come into contact with wind turbines, the tall structures have been blamed for killing other bird species, including golden eagles. And there is virtually no research on how many birds per year are killed by turbines in the U.S., Stahl said. So, once the wind farm is up and running, Pacific Wind Power will commission a bird fatality study, and also donate to an education and rehabilitation program for eagles.

"There are (few) eagles on our site because of the topography," Stahl said. "But if we do injure one, there's a bird rehabilitation center near Pendleton."

Overall, the project will employ 50 environmental mitigation tactics, adding several million dollars to the total cost. But Rankin Stahl also said groups have accepted her team's project more readily than others proposed in the area.

"I think our work with the desert association has (deterred) some other watchdog groups from spending as much time watching us as they would," Rankin Stahl said. "If you can be as direct and up-front as possible, you'll gain more respect. I went in and said, This is my backyard, too.' I want to see green power done responsibly."

As the state has worked to reduce its dependence on oil, developers and environmental groups have found they have a common goal, according to Liz Nysson, climate change coordinator for the Oregon Natural Desert Association.

"There is a movement in conservation to support renewable energy development to reduce our carbon footprint and create a new economy," Nysson said. "Projects like West Butte illustrate that there will always be impacts, but working together there are ways to develop a project with a smaller impact on its surroundings."

The Oregon Natural Desert Association is always interested in working with developers in the early stages of energy projects, Executive Director Brent Fenty said. Like Nysson, he doesn't want to see the reputation of renewables tarnished by outcry over habitat destruction, bird fatalities and other issues. Fenty said his group has been criticized by other environmentalists for being too soft on energy development, but added that compromise may be required in some instances to ensure a clean energy future.

"There is no such thing as a project without impacts," Fenty said. "There are still projects proposed in areas that are unacceptable to us. But we want to see this stuff on the grid, so at some level, we have to accept certain impacts."

The final environmental impact statement for the West Butte Wind Power project is due in a couple weeks, Stahl said. After right of way is granted by the Bureau of Land Management, geological and engineering studies will be performed. The project is expected to employ 200 people. Construction is scheduled to start later this year.

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