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Wind appeals blown away

RUTLAND- The US Forest Service has dismissed all appeals of its decision to approve the construction of 15 wind turbines on Green Mountain National Forest land in Readsboro and Searsburg.

In a decision released on Monday, Eastern Regional Forester Chuck Myers, acting as the appeal deciding officer, upheld Forest Supervisor Colleen Madrid’s January 3 decision.

Seven appeals were filed during the administrative appeal period. An appeal filed by the town of Wilmington had been dismissed earlier, after Wilmington officials were unable to prove that they submitted comments during specific periods during the initial hearing on the project. Two other appeals, by the Green Mountain Club and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, were withdrawn after the forest service agreed to a modification of mitigation for the aircraft warning lights on the turbines.

According to Forest Service spokesperson Jane Cliff, Myers’ decision hinged on whether the issues raised in the appeal had been adequately addressed during the public process according to the record of proceedings. “That’s the decision point,” Cliff said. “Were all regulations followed by the Forest Service.”

New information can come into the process. In fact, Myers’ decision includes an order to consider information on white-nose syndrome on bat mortality that was issued in a US Fish and Wildlife Service report on January 17 – two weeks after Madrid’s initial decision.

The appellants disagree with Myers’ decision. Wilmington Selectboard member Meg Streeter says that the Forest Service’s review appeared superficial. “It boiled down to ‘We told you this once already, just read it (the Environmental Impact Statement) again.’”

Streeter says Wilmington was looking for changes in the construction or mitigation requirements based on a hydrology study that indicated a risk of flooding, erosion, and water quality issues. “Someone from the Forest Service called and asked why we care about it – it’s different headwaters,” Streeter said. Wilmington extends into the area that would be affected, according to the study. “One of the concerns we cited was regarding the Medburyville bridge.”

The appeal process has been exhausted, but the appellants could continue their battle in federal court. Streeter says the Wilmington Selectboard will be discussing their options at their next meeting. But one group, with whom Wilmington worked closely on their appeal, has already decided to take the next step.

On Tuesday, Vermonters for a Clean Environment announced they will file suit in federal court sometime this week. VCE Executive Director Annette Smith said VCE expected their appeal to be denied. Smith disagrees that the Forest Service has given adequate consideration to the impact of the project, or to the legal implications. She says approval of the project was a foregone conclusion. “This project was on President Obama’s list of 14 fast-track projects,” she said. “It was all political, and everyone knew it would be approved even though it shouldn’t have.” Another project on public land in the western United States was denied, Smith said, “because it violated too many laws. And this one should have been denied, too.”

Smith questions whether the process followed ethical guidelines, pointing out what VCE says is a conflict of interest. “One of the people who was supposed to be doing an independent review here, was working for Iberdrola in New Hampshire.” Iberdrola is the company that proposes to build the Deerfield Wind facility.

In their appeal, VCE claimed the Forest Service violated several aspects of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by “turning the job of environmental analysis over to the developer, whose only goal is to build and profit from this mammoth industrial construct on public land.”

“This is precedent setting,” Smith says. “If they can do it here, they can do it anywhere.”

The Wilderness Society and Defenders of Wildlife also filed an appeal, along with Green Berkshires.

Leanne Klyza-Linck, assistant vice president for eastern conservation with The Wilderness Society, says one of the groups’ top three concerns was that the project would occur in a roadless wilderness area. Klyza-Linck explains that there is a National Forest Service designation of “inventoried roadless” on certain lands. “The conservation community tried to get Lamb Brook designated as inventoried roadless in the 1990s, but failed because of Old Stage Road. The town of Readsboro would have control over that road, and therefore Lamb Brook had a road in it.”

But Klyza-Linck notes that when the state engaged in a statewide “ancient roads” program, in which old roads were either identified and added to town inventories, or deemed to belong to private landowners, Readsboro didn’t include Old Stage Road in their inventory. In their appeal, the groups claim that the area of Readsboro in which the turbines would be built should now be categorized as inventoried roadless. “We were concerned that the Forest Service had gone ahead and approved construction in a roadless area where you’re not supposed to have logging or construction. There’s not a lot of roadless land left in this part of the country.”

Klyza-Linck also points out that there is a court injunction still in effect that prevents logging in Lamb Brook. “What we say in the appeal is that, for the project to move ahead, the developer will have to seek the court’s permission to lift the injunction.”

The groups also say the Forest Service didn’t do an adequate job of providing alternative sites. “Renewable energy is the right idea, but this is the wrong place,” says Klyza Linck.