Chris Crowley loves to ride horseback with his wife and two kids on the northern slopes of Steens Mountain in southeast Oregon.
“I just love it out there,” said Crowley, 57, a Vancouver-based community organizer for the past 18 years. For a decade he’s been working far from Clark County, however, in an area where he’s heavily invested in the biggest cause of his life: wind power and the economic development it can bring to impoverished areas of eastern Oregon.
A native of Boston, Crowley, as a youth, busked for change with his guitar on the streets of Paris. In the 1990s, he developed an eye for politics and business. When he came west he promoted the Clark County amphitheater, light rail for the Vancouver area and Democratic politicians. He also created an Internet network for hardscrabble musicians.
But since 2000, it’s been the desert Oregon winds that have fascinated Crowley.
He said he loves the Oregon desert’s big sky, the hospitality of its people and especially the prevailing winds off Steens. His Columbia Energy Partners joined the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation to develop the 200-megawatt Ta-My-Y-Slah wind project near Arlington. In 2006, Horizon Wind Energy purchased the project.
Now Crowley has his eye on Steens, a 9,733-foot, 60-mile-long fault uplift in the southeast Oregon high desert. There, the prevailing, nearly constant winter winds carry untapped power.
“It’s an amazing wind foil,” he said. “It’s like an airplane wing. It has the best wind in Oregon.”
Some conservationists worry about threats from the wind turbines to sage grouse, golden eagles, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and bats – even a possible peregrine falcon nest – and other wildlife in the area. They dislike the notion of dozens of 415-foot-tall wind turbines or a 30-mile transmission line in the desert.
Crowley says that studies show the turbines won’t hurt birds that live on lower elevations around wetlands away from the turbines. But environmentalists are skeptical.
“Our position is that it’s the right idea in the wrong place,” said Liz Nysson, energy policy coordinator for the 1,400-member Oregon Natural Desert Association. She said an “industrial-scale wind development” is out of place on the slopes of Steens Mountain.
She said her organization’s concern also has to do with process.
Taken as a whole, the billion-dollar project has four parts and would produce a total of 400 megawatts of power, enough to power about 160,000 homes. The overall project that Crowley and Columbia Energy Partners propose includes East and West Ridge, Riddle Mountain and Echanis, with 182 wind turbine towers on 50,000 acres of leased ground.
The overall project would be large enough for review by the Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council. But it wasn’t reviewed by the state agency because, taken piece by piece, it’s too small. The state council reviews projects of 105 megawatts or more, and each of these is about 100 megawatts.
Both the desert association and the Portland Audubon Society would prefer a review of the whole four-part proposal.
Named for a Basque family that originally settled the north slopes of Steens, the $300 million Echanis would be the first. It would have 40 to 60 turbines spread over 10,000 acres.
It was reviewed by Harney County and has the endorsement of county commissioners, obtained after study and public hearings. It’s the only project that has county approval for construction; the other three are in the planning stages but have no government approval as yet.
“We’re withholding judgment on Echanis, but we want them to abandon East and West Ridge,” said Bob Sallinger, spokesman for the society. “It’s not hard for the public to question this kind of development in such an iconic place.
“Wind energy advocates do themselves a disservice by saying these things do no damage to wildlife,” Sallinger said. “These things can be mitigated, but they’d do better just to say so.”
Crowley argues the four projects are discrete, each on a separate piece of property with a separate substation and separate financing. He says studies prove there is little risk to any birds or wildlife, and he says the windmills will hardly be visible from any areas where the public visits.
But the proposed East and West Ridge projects are inside the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area, which is designed to protect the inherent character of the landscape, the environmentalists said.
“To argue that dozens of windmills will change the character isn’t a hard case to make,” Sallinger said.
The project will mean economic development in the Steens area, where the Edward Hines Lumber Co. sawmill and RV maker Monaco Coach Lines have closed, dropping hundreds of workers into unemployment, Crowley said.
It’s wrong to ignore the development of wind power in the desert when many of the 7,700 people of Harney County need jobs, Crowley said.
“They are desperate to get some private development out there,” he said. “The biggest employer out there is a Safeway store. So we have a lot of support down there.” Even ranchers are having a hard time economically, he said. “Wind farms can give them money for several generations.”
It’s economic development, green energy and the idea of a temporary boost in energy from wind that brought Harney County’s approval of the Echanis project, said Steve Grasty, chairman of the Harney County commissioners.
He said he sees Echanis as environmentally sound, a green build-out that is largely out of human view and away from the area’s birds and wildlife. He said the project would provide 100 jobs for a year of construction and a dozen jobs after that.
“The Echanis project is permitted by the county, so we are solidly behind it,” Grasty said.
As it is now, he said, the children of ranchers have to split their holdings when their parents die because the huge blocks of ranch land won’t support multiple families or pay the rising taxes on the land. Leasing for wind energy will allow families to keep their property intact, he said.
Rancher Hoyt Wilson, who leased his 28,000-acre Mann Lake Ranch for Echanis, said he’d prefer to keep the land the way it is but financial realities make the leasing necessary.
The Harney County commissioners have not approved any construction for the East and West Ridge and Riddle Mountain projects, Grasty said. “Those are hypothetical at this point, and we are neutral on them. If they are proposed, they’ll have to go through the permitting process.”
The environmentalists, however, still worry about birds, the unobstructed sky and the beauty of the fragile desert.
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