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Wind-farm debate clouds Steens Mtn. anniversary

This month marks the 12th anniversary of designation of the remote Steens Mountain country of southeast Oregon as a protected area, some of it as federal wilderness. But conservation groups are in court, trying to keep wind turbines and transmission lines off the mountain.

Experts on sage grouse and golden eagles have just added their comments to the court case. Both say the Bureau of Land Management approved a wind project in the area without sufficient research about the effects on those species.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Laird Lucas says the agency relied on information from the wind developer to make its decision.

“And both of them blast the environmental study as being scientifically inaccurate, incomplete: in no way could it be relied upon for this decision,” he said. “So we’re asking the court to recognize that, throw out the decision and send them back to the drawing board.”

Lucas expects the case will be argued in December in federal court in Portland.

Although the energy from the project would be sent to Southern California, its supporters say Harney County would benefit from the jobs it would create.

Andy Kerr was at the negotiating table when the original agreement to protect the Steens Mountain area was drafted a dozen years ago. He says wind energy never entered the discussion, because it didn’t occur to anyone that it would be a factor in the future.

“We didn’t agree on much at times, but we agreed that Steens Mountain was special and generally ought to be left as it is,” he said. “Putting on very large wind turbines is inconsistent with that vision and desire to leave the mountain as it is.”

The Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) has tried since 2008 to stop the project by Columbia Energy Partners. ONDA’s former director, Bill Marlett, says the case has implications beyond southern Oregon.

“We are all for wind development in the right place at the right time,” he said. “It’s going to have impacts no matter where you put it, but Mount Hood, Crater Lake – I mean, there are some places where you just don’t want to locate a major industrial wind park.”

Since the court battle began, the developer has scaled the project back and says the turbines would be located on private land with rights-of-way from local ranchers.

But the 49 miles of transmission lines require public land access, and challengers say that opens the door for more turbines.

Chris Thomas of Oregon News Service prepared this report.