Steens Mountain is one of Oregon’s most treasured landscapes. It rises a mile above the Alvord Desert, deep in southeastern Oregon, and spans 50 miles of unparalleled vistas. People love this place because of its wild, untamed beauty, incredible desert wildlife and amazing night skies. It is home to a vast array of wildlife and has been designated an Important Bird Area, an internationally recognized designation bestowed upon only the most critical bird habitats on the planet.
More than a decade ago, Congress protected this special place in order to preserve its unique ecology. The secretary of the interior, however, recently approved an industrial-scale wind energy project with a high-power transmission line that would slice through the middle of the Steens Mountain ridgeline and a congressionally protected area. The line would link up with dozens of turbines on top of the mountain, each more than 400 feet tall to the top of the rotor blades.
If this project is completed, it will forever destroy the wild beauty and natural environment of Steens Mountain.
A broad range of scientific studies make clear that the wind turbines and transmission line will threaten wildlife and their delicate desert habitats. The project will splinter one of the greatest undeveloped landscapes left in the Great Basin, cutting off migratory routes and fragmenting breeding areas for sensitive species such as bighorn sheep, golden eagles and greater sage grouse, an iconic desert bird in danger of extinction.
When Congress protected a half-million-acre area on Steens Mountain in 2000, it directed the interior secretary to, above all else, protect the mountain’s “character” and “long-term ecological integrity.” Although the secretary acknowledged some negative impacts of the project, he selectively followed his own agency’s internal policies seeking to promote renewable energy on public lands, disregarding controlling federal laws that require him to protect sensitive species, including golden eagles and sage grouse.
Oregonians stand to gain little and lose a lot if they allow a Washington-based, New York-financed company to ruin the crown jewel of Oregon’s high desert in order to provide electricity to Southern California.
Advocates for this project argue that it will generate much-needed clean energy and that to oppose it on environmental grounds is hypocritical. That is shortsighted. The need to develop domestic sources of clean energy is clear. It is also clear that there are numerous other places throughout Oregon and the United States that are more appropriate for such development. Not all renewable-energy projects are created equal: Responsible development focuses on building near existing infrastructure and avoiding sensitive areas.
This project would change Steens Mountain forever, destroying the ability of current and future generations to experience this incredible place. The secretary has left no choice but to challenge this project through the legal system. The hope, however, is that once the secretary’s decision is reversed by the courts, he will return to the business of carefully approving only responsible renewable-energy development, upholding his obligation to protect this special place for future generations.
Brent Fenty is the executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association. Bob Sallinger is the conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland.
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