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Critics say scenery and wildlife need to be considered  

Gov. Brian Schweitzer and local leaders toasted the green energy, jobs and taxes that will be produced by northcentral Montana’s first large-scale wind farm, the Glacier Wind Farm, near Shelby during a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday.

However, not all Montanans are ready to raise their glasses. Among the skeptics is Ursula Mattson of East Glacier. She said she is all for the benefits of wind development, but worries about a potential downside, mainly “the negative impact of these huge wind farms right in front of the most spectacular scenery in our country.”

“I would just like to see awareness raised that we do need to have some sort of guidelines in place as to where wind farms will be acceptable in Montana,” Mattson said.

Many residents hail the clean energy and economic benefits brought by big-time wind-generated electricity projects. But others, such as Mattson, are sounding alarms about the effect the towering turbines could eventually have on the state’s renowned wide-open landscape, mountains and wildlife.

Wind farms on private land can be built just about anywhere, they say, with little input from the public or regulatory oversight.

State and federal regulators don’t disagree.

“It’s possible you could build a wind farm and not trigger any permits,” said Tom Ring of the state Department of Environmental Quality’s Major Facilities Siting Office.

The concerns from some residents are being raised as state and federal regulators put the finishing touches on a final environmental impact study of the Montana Alberta Tie Line, a proposed transmission line, between Great Falls and Lethbridge, Alberta.

The transmission project, if approved, would lead to the construction of at least 533 wind turbines between Great Falls and the Canadian border by three wind companies that have purchased shipping rights on the line, according to the DEQ.

Glacier Wind Farm, owned by Spain-based NaturEner, is the first project to get off the ground. It will use existing transmission lines, but a large expansion is planned if the MATL is approved.

While the DEQ and U.S. Department of Energy are reviewing the transmission project, the state has no authority over the wind farms that could follow, Ring said. In a draft study of the line, the DOE stated that the line and the wind farms are not “connected actions.”

Gene Sentz of Choteau, another Montanan who is concerned about the siting and cumulative impact of wind farms, said the transmission line and wind farms are inextricably linked. He and others are asking for more studies on the influence the wind farms will have on bats, birds and the state’s celebrated landscapes, such as the Rocky Mountain Front.

“If this is going to be the only (environmental impact study) for future wind-energy development in northcentral Montana, doesn’t it seem essential that, before the transmission line is approved, the public should know much, much more about the specific locations and size of the wind farms themselves, and the cumulative effects of those wind farms, which would have a much bigger overall impact on the landscapes than the transmission line?” Sentz asked regulators in his written comments on the draft MATL study.

In response to the concerns raised by Montana residents, regulators have provided additional information about wind development in the draft MATL report, but they could only go so far.

“Because we don’t regulate wind farms, trying to get specific information out of a very competitive industry has been challenging,” Ring said in an interview.

Regulators aren’t even sure where all the proposed wind farms would be located.

The draft MATL report adds a caveat that the accuracy of the information on the wind farm projects, gleaned from newspaper stories, press releases, government agencies, MATL developers or professional judgment, “cannot be confirmed.”

A final report on the MATL project is due out later this summer, Ring said.

The state has regulatory authority over the MATL under the Major Facilities Siting Act, but the Legislature approved amendments in 2001 removing all energy generation facilities, including wind farms, from the law’s purview.

Then-Sen. Mack Cole, a Republican from Hysham, who pushed the legislation, said the reasoning was to make it simpler for coal-fired power plants to be constructed.

“I don’t remember any discussion about wind at that time,” he said.

Wind projects and other generation facilities built on some public land still undergo a public environmental review process under different laws.

Mattson and others worry about a wind farm showing up on private land within close proximity of the Rocky Mountain Front.

“We really need to look at things like how it’s going to affect the viewsheds and how that might affect tourism and also the sheer beauty of our state,” she said.

Local governments do have powers through land-use rules to regulate privately sited wind farms, but Madison County in southwestern Montana is the only place in the state Ring knows of that has an ordinance governing towers of any sort.

Charity Fechter, Madison County’s planning director, said that in 2003 county commissioners adopted a permitting process for structures more than 100 feet tall.

It was passed to protect health and the visual environment of the scenic county after two cell phone towers went up near the airport. The ordinance also is coming in handy now that wind development is picking up there, she said.

“It has specific standards they have to comply with,” Fechter said.

Teton County Commissioners Sam Carlson and Arnold Gettel say they don’t see a need for a similar ordinance there.

Teton County is located along the Rocky Mountain Front.

“The closer you get to this Front, people think it’s got to remain the way it is,” Carlson said. “But the people who actually live here and make a living, it’s getting tougher and tougher all the time.”

Carlson and Gettel said three or four companies have prospected for wind in the area, including on Teton Ridge, which is straight east of Choteau and west of U.S. Highway 89.

“I suppose when it happens, there will be plenty of comments,” Gettel said.

Sentz has spent years advocating for protecting the Rocky Mountain Front from oil and gas development.

Today, he’s worried about the footprint of industrial wind farms on the views of the Front and other geographic landmarks located closer to the MATL corridor, such as the Sweet Grass Hills.

“If wind developers receive substantial government (tax incentives) the public should have a strong voice in deciding the siting of future wind farms – where they should and should not be located,” Sentz said.

The concerns are shared by state and federal wildlife regulators.

“We don’t have much authority over wind farms,” said Kristi DuBois, native species coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in Missoula.

She likens the state’s current level of knowledge about the wind industry and its potential effect on wildlife to what was known about the impact of hydro-electric facilities on rivers and fish when they were first constructed.

For example, the state has very little information about migration pathways of bats, she said. Without that information, it’s difficult to for the state to provide input on the siting of facilities to lessen bat fatalities from turbine blades, she said.

“A lot of people don’t understand these things have on-the-ground impacts,” she said.

The Ecological Services Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Billings is working with a dozen wind companies to make sure they comply with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Endangered Species Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

The problem, said the office’s Lou Hanebury, is that those federal laws provide regulation largely after the fact.

“We’re still learning about the costs of wind power in terms of migratory birds and bats and habitat fragmentation,” he said.

Monitoring the effect on birds is voluntary, but in 2007, officials from the agency’s Migratory Bird Office in Washington, D.C., testified before Congress in support of new federal authority to ensure wind developers minimize adverse impact on migratory birds, bats and other wildlife.

“We think perhaps it needs to be mandatory, and not voluntary, because there’s a lot of companies out there that aren’t making attempts to minimize loss of migratory birds and eagles,” Hanebury said.

Cooperative companies agree to consult with the agency and study a site before they build, he said. After construction, the companies study the mortality rate of various species. Those that disregard the federal acts protecting migrating and sensitive bird populations after the wind farm is built can be subject to fines or litigation.

Glacier Wind Farm, which will produce 210 megawatts after the first two phases of construction are complete, is consulting with the agency, he said. In the past, Hanebury found out about wind projects from newspapers.

“The service is a big fan of alternative energy,” he said. “However, there are also negative impacts and you have to balance them out.”

Bill Alexander of NaturEner, the owner of Glacier Wind Farm, said the company hired experts to conduct multiple studies in planning the wind farm, including several seasons of studies on migratory, endangered and ground-nesting birds, in addition to studies of microwave transmission and Department of Defense radio communication.

“We find it’s always better to get an independent source for those,” Alexander said.

Gov. Schweitzer said in an interview at Thursday’s groundbreaking for the wind farm that he has heard concerns about the lack of regulation on privately sited facilities.

“I disagree with that,” he said. “To start with, it’s the landowners themselves that decide whether they want to be a participant.”

Sen. Jerry Black, R-Shelby, a strong supporter of wind development, said he would prefer that developers use more state-owned school trust lands, where applicable. That way schools benefit more directly from the revenue produced by the wind farms, but he added he can’t blame developers for wanting to avoid red tape.

Wind farms are a huge boost in economic development for the area, he said, and most residents view the turbines as “a nice addition to the landscape.”

“I haven’t heard of any real need to add regulations,” Black said. “Because I haven’t heard of any adverse impacts.”

Clive Rooney, area manager for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s northeastern land office in Lewistown, said that when wind farms are on state-owned school trust land, they must follow the Montana Environmental Policy Act, which requires an environmental review of the site and public participation prior to construction.

If a project is located on private land, MEPA doesn’t apply, he said.

A 70-megawatt wind farm planned near Martinsdale is undergoing an environmental analysis because it includes school trust land. The analysis process involves taking comment from the public.

Rooney said comments on the project are between those concerned with the change to the landscape and those welcoming the economic development. The analysis process will take about two years from start to finish, he said.

The governor’s Climate Change Advisory Committee is recommending that the DEQ implement a wind-power certification program under which wind-power generation companies would be certified if they implement measures to minimize the impact on wildlife, said Janet Ellis of the Montana Audubon Society.

The proposed provision came at the urging of conservation organizations and state agencies that are concerned about the potential effect of turbines on birds and bats, particularly those towers located in migration flyways and nesting areas.

“It would be voluntary,” Ellis said. “We could at least experiment how to regulate wind energy.”

Mattson, of East Glacier, a physical therapist who works at hospitals and clinics on the Hi-Line, wasn’t at Thursday’s celebratory groundbreaking for the Glacier Wind Farm, but she said she has followed wind development closely.

She said she is not worried about the visual impact of Glacier Wind Farm, which she said is removed from the immediate viewshed of the Rocky Mountain Front and Glacier National Park. But she said a discussion still is in order on the issue of siting future wind farms, followed by having “some sort of guidelines set up for where we will – and will not – find wind farms acceptable.”

“I think there are appropriate places for wind farms and wind-energy generation, but I don’t think it’s up against the Rocky Mountain Front or Glacier National Park, and that’s my main concern,” she said.

By Karl Puckett
Tribune Staff Writer

Great Falls Tribune

20 July 2008

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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