Maine’s two largest Indian tribes are raising concerns about a large wind power project proposed for eastern Maine, saying it may interfere with sacred religious ceremonies dating back 10,000 years.
In a letter to Maine’s Land Use Regulation Commission, an official with the Passamaquoddy Tribe says the Bowers Mountain Wind Project is too close to cultural and spiritual sites on its land. Nearby wind turbines, says Donald Soctomah, the tribe’s historic preservation officer, would have a harmful effect on cultural activities.
In addition, a joint tribal commission that carries out the Maine Indian Land Claims Act says LURC has failed to consult with the tribes as required by law, a contention that’s being disputed by the agency. Meanwhile, an official with the Penobscot Nation says he’s just learning about the project, which is adjacent to a tribal religious site in Lakeville Plantation.
“We’re kind of shocked,” John Banks, the Penobscots’ director of natural resources, told The Portland Press Herald. “We didn’t know about it because we weren’t consulted.”
The Bowers Mountain Wind Project is being proposed by Boston-based First Wind Holdings and currently is being reviewed by LURC. The agency held public hearings in June, in Lincoln. Neither the tribes nor the tribal commission testified, but Soctomah and the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission submitted written comments earlier this month.
In a written statement Monday, First Wind says it met with Passamaquoddy tribal officials in 2010, and got a “letter of no objection” from the Penobscot Nation.
“Tribal leaders never voiced any objections to the project whatsoever in our meeting or at any point afterward,” the company said. “At no time were we informed that there were concerns about sacred or ceremonial grounds.”
First Wind said it’s willing to meet with the tribes to discuss the latest issue.
The tribes own tens of thousands of acres of forestland near the Bowers Mountain site. Because the tribes are considered sovereign nations under state and federal law, their concerns add a new dimension to the ongoing debate over wind power in Maine.
Maine has four large, commercial projects and a couple of smaller wind farms in operation. Two more big farms are being built, and others are being proposed.
The response from the Maine tribes comes two weeks after a federal lawsuit raising similar issues was filed in Massachusetts by a Martha’s Vineyard tribe, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head. The Wampanoag seek to stop development of the massive Cape Wind offshore energy project in Nantucket Sound. The tribe is arguing that the 130-turbines and related equipment will harm its religious, cultural and fishing interests.
In Maine, First Wind is seeking permits for a $136 million project that would add 27 turbine towers to the rolling hills east of Lincoln. The wind farm would add 69 megawatts of capacity to the grid, and generate enough electricity to power 31,000 homes for a year.
The project has drawn opposition from sporting-camp owners and fishing guides across the Downeast Lakes watershed. They worry that the site of turbine blades and navigation lights will ruin the remote, wild feel of the region and offend visiting fishermen and other guests.
The Passamaquoddy Tribe’s concerns are outlined in a letter written by Soctomah, a former tribal representative to the Maine Legislature.
The tribe has several places set aside for traditional cultural activities, he writes, notably in Township 5, Range 1, in Penobscot County and Township 5ND in Washington County. Soctomah declined to more closely identify the location of these sites, emphasizing their cultural significance.
“Located on these two tribal townships, near the wind turbine site, are religious sites, places that have been used for the last 10,000 years,” Soctomah writes. “We believe that the wind turbines would have a harmful effect also on this activity for the tribes.”
In an interview, Soctomah said the 3,300-member tribe owns more than 40,000 acres of forestland in the area, some of it near Junior Lake. The remote location gives members the chance to practice their religious beliefs in a natural setting.
“This is one of our isolated land holdings,” he said. “It’s away from development. It’s very important to us.”
Soctomah stressed that the Passamaquoddy Tribe isn’t opposed to wind power in general. It didn’t fight the nearby Rollins and Stetson wind farms, and has been studying its own wind power potential in tribal blueberry barrens.
Banks, the Penobscot official, stopped short of saying the tribe objected to the Bowers Mountain project. He did express general concerns about visual impact and the effect on fishing and hunting.
“We’re not sure what the impacts are because we haven’t been consulted,” he said.
LURC also received a letter from the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission. Its executive director, John Dieffenbacher-Krall, said the tribes have received no information about Bowers Mountain and are objecting to the lack of consultation.
Beyond process, the Penobscots’ principal concern, Dieffenbacher-Krall wrote, is the proximity of and potential visual impact on a Wabanaki sacred site and ceremonial grounds in Springfield.
“The Penobscot Nation has over 14,000 acres that are potentially impacted by the Bowers Mountain project,” he wrote. “No mention of these sites or lands is made in the applicants’ visual analysis. (The tribal commission) views the application as incomplete until such an analysis is done.”
But Fred Todd, a LURC planner, said the sites of tribal concern aren’t listed for review under the state’s Wind Power Act. He also questioned why the tribes didn’t raise issues earlier and waited until the comment period had nearly closed. LURC is scheduled to rule on the project by Dec. 9.
“Perhaps there should have been more direct contact, but they had opportunities to raise concerns,” Todd said.
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