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State panel backs Skamania wind project

Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council recommended Thursday that Gov. Chris Gregoire approve a proposed wind project on private forest land in Skamania County, but with 15 of the project’s 50 turbines eliminated to protect views in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

The council met in Stevenson, and neither its members nor its staff were available for comment after the meeting adjourned at about 7 p.m. The vote to approve the project with modifications was 6-0, with one member absent.

Nathan Baker, staff attorney for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said the council found the Whistling Ridge wind project to be consistent with land use zoning ordinances and state guidelines covering habitat for fish and wildlife. Baker attended the entire session.

The staff report did not address concerns raised Wednesday by five conservation groups, which reported that there was activity in the area last year by a northern spotted owl, a threatened species that could be affected by the erection of dozens of wind turbines in the forest, each about 420 feet tall.

The modified approval would eliminate seven turbines closest to the community of Underwood and eight others on the northeast part of the project that would be visible to motorists entering Hood River, Ore., from the east.

The council’s staff said scaling back the project also would help to reduce noise, especially in the Underwood area closest to the turbines, and that the project could still achieve its proposed maximum capacity of 75 megawatts by using more powerful turbines.

“We’re encouraged that the council was concerned about scenic impacts, but this decision does not go far enough,” Baker said. “It would reduce the number of turbines but there would still be several turbines breaking the skyline with flashing lights and moving blades.”

The Forest Service and the National Park Service both had formally proposed that several of the southernmost turbines be eliminated from the project to protect scenic views.

The $150 million project was first proposed by SDS Lumber Co. of Bingen and its partner, Broughton Lumber Co., in 2008. The companies propose to develop the wind farm on 1,152 acres immediately north of the National Scenic Area boundary. Jason Spadero, president of both SDS and Broughton, did not return a call requesting comment.

A final environmental impact statement paid for by the applicants and released in August said the Whistling Ridge project would provide a temporary boost to the Gorge economy of about $13.2 million during construction. Eight or nine permanent employees would be needed to operate the wind farm, which would have a projected life of 30 years. Skamania County would see an increase in its annual property tax revenue of approximately $730,000 due to the increased assessed value of the wind farm property.

The council will accept requests from interested parties for reconsideration of its decision for 20 days, and will allow itself 14 days to respond if it receives such requests. The governor has 60 days to approve the project after the council forwards its final recommendation.