Proposed wind farm site is home to endangered wildlife
MONTEREY – Henry McBride recalls a day in the 1960s when he and an employee fed cattle on his Highland County land.
As the two men tossed hay from the back of a truck, it blew away faster than the cows could eat it. McBride asked his employee to get out of the wind.
“He says, ‘You can’t get out of the wind,'” McBride said. “And right he was.”
Though McBride researched wind at that time, it was something he would forget about for years. When he began to study the issue again in 1998, he said he realized that he was sitting on a good crop. “Let’s harvest it,” he said.
This idea would be met with controversy.
When the Highland County Board of Supervisors granted McBride’s company, Highland New Wind Development, a conditional use permit on July 14, 2005, it was not without strong opposition.
For some, the seam of Allegheny ridges along the state border are the perfect location for Virginia’s first wind farm to generate electricity.
To others, there couldn’t be a worse place.
Kind of like heaven
From a large window in her wood-paneled living area, Patti Reum can see the profiles of Bear and Middle Mountains. Beyond these is Red Oak Knob, one of the two ridges where McBride plans to place 13 to 19 wind turbines.
Reum and her husband run the Bear Mountain Farm and Wilderness Retreat, a place she says is as close as you can get to heaven.
“We didn’t move up here to look at wind turbines,” she said.
The retreat is one of the few places where people can come and have a wilderness experience, Reum said. She said she is worried that her customers will stop coming once the turbines are built.
Highland County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jerry Rexrode, who voted in favor of the project, said that based on other localities, he thinks the wind farm will increase tourism in the area.
But Reum said it is factors like culture, historical significance and outdoor experiences that will place the county on a tourist’s map – not turbines.
Tourists will come to see wind turbines once, Reum said.
“My guests come back year after year after year,” she said. “They come back to experience the wilderness that we provide. They won’t come back to see wind turbines.”
In addition to fears about her business, Reum said she is concerned that construction for the wind farm will cause sediment to enter local streams, damaging water quality.
The headwaters for the Potomac, James and Greenbrier Rivers pass through the area, Reum said. “People need to be worried in (Washington) D.C.,” she said.
Effects on wildlife
More than anything, Reum said she is worried about the potential impact of the wind farm on bald and golden eagles, bats and migratory birds.
Reum said she has started a couple of projects tracking birds in the area, one of which is registered with the Hawk Migration Association of North America.
“What I’ve found is that these ridges are a major raptor corridor, especially for eagles,” she said. “These ridges, specifically the area around the wind turbine site, have been found to be major songbird migration areas also.”
Reum said that one of the projects she has worked on has discovered two bald eagle nests and has documented the presence of bald and golden eagles in all months of the year. Though no golden eagle nest has ever been found on the East Coast west of the Mississippi River except in Canada and Northern Maine, Reum said the fact that the eagles are there year-round might mean that they are breeding in the area.
In addition to killing birds, wind turbines at other sites have been found to kill bats, said Rick Lambert, a member of the Virginia Highlands Grotto of the National Speleological Society and local bat enthusiast.
At the Mountaineer Wind Energy Center in West Virginia, 47.5 bats were killed per turbine annually, he said.
In addition to common bats, there are 41 Indiana Bat caves within 50 miles and 23 Virginia Big-eared Bat caves within 30 miles of the proposed wind farm, Lambert said. Both species of bats are endangered and the turbines will be well within their migratory distance, he said.
Though no endangered bat has ever been found dead at wind turbine site, Lambert said he feels it is only a matter of time before one is.
In places like the Midwest, only one or two bats are killed per turbine, per year, Lambert said.
“And that should be the place, if you’re going to build them,” he said. “This is just the wrong place for wind turbines.”
Based on conversations with experts, McBride said he does not think the turbines will harm endangered species. “I don’t want to kill anything,” he said. “That’s not my nature.”
More birds are killed by buildings, power lines and cars than by wind turbines, said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for wind developers on the East Coast who is representing the project.
Rick Reynolds, a wildlife specialist at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, testified to the State Corporation Commission about the wind project. All energy projects in the state are required to apply for a permit from the commission, he said.
Reynolds said his organization was concerned that there could be an impact on birds and bats and suggested mitigation measures to reduce fatalities.
For example, because bat fatalities tend to occur at low wind speeds during evening hours from mid-summer through fall, Reynolds suggested that the developers raise the cut-in speed of the turbines during those times so that they would only run at higher wind speeds.
Because the corporation commission decided to require McBride to do the mitigation measures, Reynolds said he is feeling more comfortable about the project. The measures will do a lot to minimize the impact on bats, he said.
Reynolds said his agency was less concerned that construction could impact water quality because the landowner will use best management practices.
However, McBride’s decision not to apply for a incidental take permit and undergo a habitat conservation plan with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been a point of controversy. While an incidental take permit would offer McBride some protection if the wind turbines do kill an endangered species, the corporation commission decided not to require McBride to apply for one as part of the application process.
McBride said he decided not to get the permit because of the time it would take to apply.
The right place
There are three things that make McBride’s land particularly well-suited for a wind farm, Maisano said. There is good wind, very high bald top ridges and a transmission line that already crosses the property, he said.
“He’s got the best location, as far as I’m concerned, in the state of Virginia,” Rexrode said.
In addition to attracting tourists, the project will bring in about $200,000 in tax revenue every year, Rexrode said.
McBride also said that he believes the project will benefit the county economically. Employees of the wind farm will shop at local stores and spend money in the county, he said.
Highland County doesn’t have many ways to get tax revenue without taxing its residents, Maisano said. “This is money out of thin air for Highland County,” he said.
Rexrode said that he thinks most of the opposition has come from people who don’t want to have the project in their backyard.
“Anytime you want to build anything anyplace, you have a group of opponents,” he said. “And they speak the loudest.”
It is up to elected officials to research the facts and then make a decision, Rexrode said.
Supervisor Robin Sullenberger voted against the project. Though he is in favor of renewable energy, Sullenberger said he felt that there were still too many unknowns about wind development at this time.
However, now that the conditional use permit for the project has passed, Sullenberger said he will support the board’s decision and is committed to making sure that the project becomes something the county can be proud of.
“I am much less fearful of this project now that I originally was,” he said. “I trust the fact that Mr. McBride appreciates Highland County and also that he will personally make sure that this project is done correctly,” he said.
The project will provide clean energy to a state that doesn’t have any, Maisano said.
McBride said he plans to leave his land to his children. He said he hopes that revenue from the wind farm will enable them to keep it as one tract of land.
Of the 4,000 acres owned by himself and family members, McBride said only about 200 will be covered by the wind farm.
“This is a good thing for that county, and I believe that and I will go to my grave believing that,” he said.
By Lauren Fulbright/staff
2 March 2008
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