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Unlike elsewhere, Montanans almost fully back wind farms

JUDITH GAP – Some of the people who stop in at the Mercantile on the main drag here are from states where wind farms are controversial.

Places like Vermont, or the West Coast.

They learn quickly from Mercantile owner Lorraine Peterson that Montana is not like those places. Judith Gap is behind its wind farm south of town at least 99 percent.

“They’re just kind of surprised we’re OK with it,” Peterson said.

The wind farm is an otherworldly spectacle that fascinates visitors and Montanans alike.

The 90 Redwood-like turbines stand like sentinels over the rolling terrain, shorter only than the nearby Little Belt, Crazy and Big Snowy mountain ranges.

Each turbine supports three, 122-foot long blades that twirl against the sky, giving off glints of silver. Taken together, the farm looks almost as if it belongs in a scene out of a “Star Wars” movie battlefield, not the middle of the Montana prairie.

Of the 90 towers, the 35 sitting on the highest pieces of ground reach so far heavenward FAA lights are required. At night, the red lights can be seen, giving the sky a futuristic look, residents say.

From a distance, vehicles zipping past underneath the giants look like MatchBox cars.

“I have a lot of people in the store who ask about it,” Peterson said.

Peterson and Susan Miller, another resident, said the wind farm continues to be a source of fascination for visitors and opportunity for locals.

One of the huge blades, damaged when the turbines were put up, lies in the town park like a beached whale. Invenergy donated it to the city, and residents are planning a wind farm-themed park around it. Miller said a walking park is envisioned that will have kiosks explaining the project from beginning to end as well as how much energy it produces.

The park isn’t developed yet but Miller says the huge blade already can draw as many as 80 people some days in the summer.

“It’s a huge attractant,” she said.

Most of the 12 employees who work at the wind farm are local, said John Bacon, who runs the farm for Invenergy. He said starting pay at wind farms typically is higher than most jobs, around $15.

Bacon has given his share of tours to residents from Billings, Great Falls and other communities in Montana. Some people just show up.

Quite frankly, he says, the number of people who have shown interest stuns him. Bacon is originally from Montana and the job from Invenergy lured him back to his home state from Minnesota, where he was working at another large wind farm.

Posters explaining the wind farm hang in Peterson’s store. She said most residents support the farm because they believe it’s a good alternative energy source or they see potential for jobs and economic development.

Those who stop on their way through are fascinated by the wind farm and ask how residents have responded to it.

“We’re behind it totally,” Peterson replies.

She suspects the folks who are surprised are from states where development pressures are a bit more acute than they are in Judith Gap.

In Montana, Peterson notes with a laugh, if you don’t like the view in one direction, you can turn your head and look the other way and find another view more to your liking.

“I think we have so much wide-open space,” she said.

By Karl Pucket
Tribune Staff Writer