For now, life on Seven Mile Hill is quiet. The deer move easily. Eagles soar with grace. The few families in the area stare at vast, rolling hills. Yet as the Columbia River Gorge continues to face swarms of growth and development, one of the growing dilemmas of our region has become all the more pertinent: What is more important—taking advantage of a natural, efficient power supply or conserving the beauty of a national treasure?
A proposed wind farm on Seven Mile Hill near the tiny town of Mosier, Oregon is the centerpiece of the trouble that stems from development near a protected scenic area. The Cascade Wind Project, proposed by UPC Wind Partners, has thus far drawn serious opposition from not only residents of Mosier, but throughout the Gorge and beyond. The farm would be built just outside the Scenic Area boundary, and the 389-foot-high turbines of the 40 towers would be clearly visible from many areas in the Gorge, including Interstate 84 and McCall Point Trail.
“This proposal is a slap in the face of the protection rights that everybody in the Gorge has had to live up to for the past twenty years,” says Mike Rockwell, a real estate agent who lives in Mosier. “It’s simply not a wise location.”
It’s possible that Oregon’s (sometimes blind) enthusiasm for renewable energy will help rally support for the wind farm. After all, each 1.5-megawatt turbine on the farm would produce enough electricity to power the equivalent of 300 homes annually. And it’s no secret that the four families who own the 5,800 acres that UPC Wind has designated for the project will reap serious financial rewards (although neither UPC nor the landowners will disclose a specific amount, it will likely be in the tens of thousands of dollars annually).
Criticism of the project derives from the potential loss of the reason that so many locals choose to make the Columbia Gorge their home: natural beauty.
“The towers would be highly visible at places where people come to recreate, see wildflowers or even live,” says Michael Lang, the conservation director for The Friends of the Columbia Gorge.
Many residents of the Gorge have strongly voiced their opposition to the project, saying that they don’t want giant wind towers obliterating their views. Others have voiced concern for wildlife, most specifically for the dozens of species of birds that nest in the Gorge. Fog—certainly not a rarity during winter in the gorge—aggravates the problem for all birds because they simply can’t see as well. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has stated that wind towers should not be near wetlands or other known bird or bat concentration areas or in areas with a high incidence of fog or low cloud ceilings, particularly during spring and fall migrations. The Columbia River happens to be one of the only east-west flyways through the Oregon Cascades, thus is filled with migratory birds.
In addition, many Mosier residents are concerned their quiet community will be overrun with booming trucks hauling loads of huge equipment to and from the project site.
“We have been listening to the community’s comments and concerns,” says Krista Kisch, vice president of Business Development – West Region for UPC Wind, “and will continue working to address those concerns as the project moves ahead.”
Mosier is a small, independent community where you might expect to hear a pin drop from one end of town to the other. Yet, when I spent an hour in town recently I observed seven semi-trucks hauling loads of gravel rumbling directly through town, using the same road UPC would use to haul their loads to Seven Mile Hill. I also couldn’t help but notice the relentless purr of traffic on nearby Interstate 84. Then there was the eardrum-smashing sound of a westbound train as it charged past town.
According to Dotty DeVaney, a contract planner for the city of Mosier, no documents have come from UPC officials outlining what roads would be used or created to carry materials to Seven Mile Hill. In addition, UPC has not ensured Mosier or Wasco County that any roads used during construction will be in the same condition or better once the project is completed, says DeVaney.
It’s probable that if construction of the wind farm goes through it will be a horrible nuisance to some Mosier residents and the surrounding area. Truck traffic on the road to Seven Mile will increase dramatically, particularly during the several years it will take to construct the project. What needs to be considered by the opposition is whether the long-term benefits of the wind farm outweigh the nuisance and inconvenience of its construction?
“We support renewable energy and wind farms,” says Lang. “Siting is the critical issue.”
Regardless of one’s personal views about wind farms, Oregon passed a state renewable energy standard this spring that requires electric utility companies to issue 25 percent of their services from renewable sources by 2025.
“UPC Wind believes that the proposed Cascade Wind Project will make an important contribution to help meet Oregon’s goal of increasing the state’s renewable energy sources,” says Kisch.
Lang asserts that Wasco County and state laws currently limit or prohibit wind energy use near the Gorge, and that “commercial energy generation is outright prohibited in the Scenic Area.”
One problem facing the proposal has been a lack of communication between UPC officials and concerned citizens or organizations, says Lang.
“We have not had constructive dialogue with UPC,” he said, adding that the company is using a “rigid approach” to handling the situation.
According to Kisch, the Oregon Department of Energy has requested additional information from UPC and that they “are taking the time necessary to fully consider and address all of the issues raised.”
As the demand for pollution-free power continues to rise from the “green” West, wind farms proliferate. Until now, the towers have gone up further east, in remote fields and rangeland where few people travel to take in scenic amenities. It’s a different story in the Gorge, where hundreds of thousands of tourists travel each year to hike, bike, windsurf or simply relax outdoors.
Rockwell argues that “To have the hills lined with wind towers that are 400-hundred feet tall totally detracts from the intent of the Scenic Act.”
This is not the first wind farm proposed near the Scenic Area’s boundary. During the past decade several farms, including those on Seven Mile Hill and an Enron proposal 30 miles to the east have failed to pass even the application process. Other wind farms have already been constructed near Wasco and Arlington. However, the farm on Seven Mile Hill will be closer to the Scenic Area than any of others to date.
The Oregon Department of Energy ruled UPC’s preliminary application for the wind farm on Seven Mile Hill incomplete in July. UPC was told it had to be more specific about noise levels, wildlife impacts and other details. Even if the follow-up report comes through before the end of the year, as it is expected to do, a final ruling on the project could be years out, ODE officials have indicated.
By the year 2025 there is no doubt more wind farms will continue to develop throughout Oregon. And in the mean time, Seven Mile Hill’s future waits quietly with soaring eagles, a few surrounding homes and the elements.
By Joseph Friedrichs
30 October 2007
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