BURNS – In a green vs. green federal lawsuit, two environmental groups are challenging what they call an “industrial-scale” wind project on the north end of ruggedly beautiful Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon.
“Of all the places in Oregon’s high desert, this is perhaps the worst place for wind development,” said Brent Fenty, executive director of the 1,200-member Oregon Natural Desert Association based in Bend.
His group has mapped out numerous areas on eastern Oregon’s high desert where wind development could occur without the negative social and environmental consequences of the Steens Mountain site, Fenty said.
Bob Sallinger, conservation director for Portland Audubon, concedes going against the project in court puts his group in a new and uncomfortable role.
Portland Audubon supports “responsible renewable energy development, but this is the antithesis,” he said. “If you can go into Steens Mountain, what is next? Mount Hood? Crater Lake?”
The two groups have filed suit in U.S. District Court in Portland to stop plans for the $300 million Echanis Wind Project and its 40 to 60 wind turbines on 10,000 acres of private ranch land. It’s one of two wind projects proposed on or near the spectacular 9,733-foot fault-block of Steens Mountain. Each would generate 104 megawatts, enough to power about 30,000 homes.
Transmission lines for the turbines would extend north across 44 miles of rolling sagebrush managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to link the turbines to an existing transmission line owned by Harney Electric Cooperative. Ultimately, the power would go to Southern California as part of an agreement with Southern California Edison.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved the lines in December and Harney County has approved the Echanis project.
The vast and sparsely populated county, with 12.5 percent unemployment, was counting on the Echanis project to provide 100 construction jobs and up to 12 full-time maintenance jobs, said Steven E. Grasty, chairman of the county commission.
“I have never seen anything deflate a community the way that lawsuit did,” Grasty said, other than the loss of the Edward Hines Lumber Co. sawmill in 1980. “This is equal to about 1,500 jobs in Portland. Huge, huge impact.”
Only two other counties – Grant and Crook – had a higher jobless rate in March.
For some of the county’s 7,422 residents, losing the project also would waste a commodity that the area has in spades. During a 24-hour test in January 2010, the average wind speed clocked on the north face of Steens Mountain was 41 mph. Chris Crowley, president of Columbia Energy Partners, the Echanis developer, said that may be unique in Oregon.
Crowley said he has been advised by his attorneys not to discuss the lawsuit. The company is still waiting for permits for its Riddle Mountain project 14 miles north of Steens Mountain. It has abandoned plans for two other similar-sized wind projects near Steens Mountain.
The lawsuit focuses on findings in a BLM environmental impact statement released last July that the turbines and transmission lines would be visible from less than one-half of 1 percent of the 170,000-acre Steens Mountain Wilderness.
Portland Audubon and the Oregon Natural Desert Association argue that the figure is meaningless because the Steens Wilderness encompasses only a fraction of the entire Steens Mountain area. Both sides seem to agree that the 415-foot-tall rolled-steel turbines would be seen from Mann Lake, Fields-Denio Road on the east side of Steens Mountain and the Steens Loop Road on the summit, but not from Frenchglen or the Alvord Desert.
The groups claim the transmission lines, wind turbines, access roads and associated developments also would threaten migratory routes and breeding areas for bighorn sheep, golden eagles and sage grouse. Further, they would slice across one of the largest remaining undeveloped landscapes in the Northwest’s Great Basin, Sallinger said.
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