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We need to know more before pushing wind projects

As a state whose economic well-being is tied to development and management of its energy resources – coal, natural gas, hydroelectric power – should Montana have a plan for harnessing its wind?

That’s a question many people in Park and Sweet Grass counties are raising as more information slowly emerges about two proposed wind projects along the Yellowstone River Valley between Big Timber and Livingston.

Details about the two projects – one in the eastern Park County, the other in western Sweet Grass County – are not easy to come by. Newspapers have reported on them in varying detail, but it is safe to say there has been much more public concern generated than confidence.

Spanish-owned Enerfin has proposed the Coyote Wind project just north of the Yellowstone near Springdale in Park County. It is proposed for 44-turbines anchored by eight machines on a section of state trust land, with the other 38 sited on privately held land. Adjoining neighbors have filed suit against the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, contesting the state-approved final environmental impact statement for Coyote Wind.

We learned this summer of the planned Mission Creek Wind Project of 8 to 11 turbines on private land just south of I-90 and west of Mission Creek Road. This effort is led by Sagebrush Energy, an investment group based in Jackson, Wyo.

(In both cases, the proposed turbine towers are 262 feet tall; the blade tip at its highest rotation extends more than 400 feet above the ground. Other regional projects include a Sagebrush Energy plan for a Norris Hill development and a German proposal for up to 132 turbines straddling the Sweet Grass-Stillwater county line.)

Proponents’ pushback to those who question local wind power from is to invoke the “NIMBY” accusation (“not in my backyard). Primary proponents are investors, those hired by investors, and property owners who would receive lease payments from exercising their personal property rights by doing what they want on their own land.

While there are some locals whose home would actually be in the shadow of these towers and who fear for their own quality of life – if not sanity – the bigger issues are how these projects would be managed into the future and whether they set the stage for additional wind farms.

A representative of one project told me the other day, “If it isn’t us then it will be someone else.”

That’s exactly the point. Can and should Montana develop a strategic plan that reflects the predictability factors valued so highly by investors? The policy posted on the Montana Department of Commerce website is long on prose but short on specifics.

With Montana per capita income and total personal income dramatically trailing even national averages, no one can argue the need for more and better-paying jobs.

As in virtually everything in life, for every positive there is a negative. If development of Montana’s wind resources is the positive, then what can be done to mitigate the negative? I believe we have the ability to develop sustainable public policy that affords predictability to this significant economic potential.

Meanwhile, those behind both Coyote Wind and Mission Creek insist they would be good neighbors and are genuinely interested in the local communities.

But it is near-certain that through reassignment rights the developer would cash out and a new owner would take over.

I’m not condemning these projects because the information simply isn’t available now to determine whether the greater good is to build them. But I do believe that to this point, they’ve done the absolute bare minimum to explain themselves to the community.

Montana deserves better. And Montana can do better for itself.

Peter D. Fox lives and works in the Shields River Valley north of Livingston.