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Clark County wind farm on hold

State introduces a delay to think through possible environmental effects of the turbine construction.

A potential wind farm envisioned straddling a ridgeline near Larch Mountain in east Clark County has been put on hold.

The state Department of Natural Resources, anticipating a boom in wind energy development spilling across the west side of the Cascades, wants more information before it considers leasing western state forests to wind farmers.

Jane Chavey, a DNR spokeswoman in Olympia, said the agency wants to understand how skyscraper-high wind turbines might affect northern spotted owls or coastal birds such as marbled murrelets. State and federal biologists added that fish and wildlife concerns are much more pronounced in the varied landscapes of western Washington than on the dry-land wheat farms that characterize much of Eastern Washington.

“We want to make sure we go into this with a very well-thought-out approach,” Chavey said.

The delay follows a report last month of a golden eagle’s collision with a wind tower southeast of Goldendale in the Columbia River Gorge, believed to be the first known casualty of an eagle killed by a wind turbine in Washington.

EnXco Inc., doing business as Evergreen Wind Power Partners, expressed interest last year in leasing 5,400 acres of DNR land in a remote area of east Clark County near Larch Mountain.

A second company, Horizon Wind Energy, subsequently expressed interest in the site.

State officials began preparing a preliminary environmental review followed by an auction similar to a timber sale.

At the time, state lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland had been encouraging wind energy companies to take a look at state timberland as a way for the state to wring extra value from those lands while boosting the development of renewable energy. The state has long been involved in leasing out state pasture land in Eastern Washington for wind towers, and the two-term Republican saw opportunities to do the same on DNR-owned forests.

Sutherland was defeated for re-election last fall by Democrat Peter Goldmark.

Chavey emphasized that the change in leadership had nothing to do with the DNR’s taking a step back to consider leasing westside forests for wind turbines.

“We’re becoming more aware of the subtleties we’ll need to deal with on the west side,” she said.

In arid Eastern Washington, erecting wind turbines amid open pastures and wheat fields is a relatively straightforward proposition.

Now imagine trying to haul 400-foot-tall wind turbines through thick evergreen forests crisscrossed by fish-bearing streams. Constructing access roads would be an expensive and, potentially, an environmentally destructive proposition.

“These aren’t like logging roads to get those blades in there,” said Jim Michaels, a biologist consulting with the DNR for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Olympia. “They’re greater than 40 feet in width, almost like a superhighway.”

Once in place, the turbines run the risk of sharing space with a diversity of wildlife that mirrors the varied westside terrain – creatures living on inland bays, coastal beaches, lakes, rivers, streams and myriad kinds of forests. Wind turbines spin at about 180 mph, and the associated concrete pads, roads and transmission lines also present issues for terrestrial creatures.

State authorities are trying to put together a map showing areas that would be better for wind turbines than others.

Federal officials credited the DNR with getting ahead of the curve.

“Normally, we don’t hear about these things until an applicant has sunk quite a bit of money into it,” Michaels said. “It doesn’t take long to wrap up a couple of million dollars in a site.”

Agency spokesman Doug Zimmer added: “A lot of times, by talking to us early, we can find ways to say, ‘If you move two miles down this ridge, life will be better for everybody.'”