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Columbia Gorge wind farm opponents may go to court

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire on Monday approved plans for a wind farm on the north side of the Columbia River Gorge over the objections of conservation groups and neighboring landowners, who fear the project will create unwanted noise, harm endangered species habitat and mar a popular scenic region.

Opponents said they may appeal the decision in court. One of the developers, meanwhile, said the approved project – smaller than was originally proposed – isn’t economically viable at this time and is on hold.

Since 2008, SDS Lumber Co. of Bingen and Broughton Lumber Co. of Underwood have proposed to build 50 turbines on 1,200 acres of commercial timberland overlooking the Columbia River, near White Salmon in Skamania County. The developers said the $150 million Whistling Ridge Energy Project would boost renewable energy production and aid the economy in a depressed county comprised almost entirely of federal land.

The project faced stiff opposition given its proximity to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, created in 1986.

Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council recommended in October that the project be scaled back from 50 to 35 turbines. Gregoire approved the smaller project Monday, but said her decision wasn’t reached lightly.

“A modified project with 35 wind turbines would help meet our need for clean energy and bring needed jobs and revenue to Skamania County, while preserving the aesthetic and recreational benefits of the Gorge,” she said in a statement. “This decision is a balanced approach, and one that serves all citizens of the state.”

Jason Spadaro, president of SDS Lumber, said he appreciates the governor’s approval, but that the reduced size of the project means it is not economically viable at this time. A smaller project will need higher power prices to be viable, he said, and the project will be on hold but not permanently shelved.

“The need for renewable energy continues to be important, and the need for economic development in rural counties like Skamania that have so little opportunity is critical. We appreciate (the governor’s) recognition of that,” he said. “But this project will be on hold, waiting for greater demand for renewable energy in the state of Washington.”

The group Friends of the Columbia Gorge said it may challenge the approval in court, though executive director Kevin Gorman said it was good to hear the project is on hold.

Icons of the Northwest, such as Mount Rainier and the Gorge, should be off-limits to large energy developments, he said.

“This project is not critical to our energy needs and not worth sacrificing the unique scenic beauty and wildlife of the Columbia River Gorge,” he said. “We can combat global warming without having to sacrifice our most special places and our core values.”