MONTPELIER – A seasoned deer hunter and a woman who learned the ways of bear from her hunting guide father will testify as experts during a hearing Wednesday on wind test towers before the Public Service Board (PSB).
In a decision handed down last week, PSB hearing officer Bridgette Remington said she would allow private citizens Valerie Desmarais and Winston Newland, both of West Burke, to testify as experts.
Ms. Remington, who will preside over the hearing, handed down her decision over the objections of Seneca Mountain Wind of Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
“I find that Mr. Newland has sufficient knowledge of the wilderness and wildlife in the vicinity based on his 58 years of hunting and hiking in the Hawk Rock area to be considered an expert witness regarding the wildlife and wildlife habitat in the Hawk Rock area,” Ms. Remington wrote.
“I also find that Ms. Desmarais has sufficient knowledge, experience, and skill based on her extensive time spent in the wilderness of the Northeast Kingdom and the tutelage she received from her father to be considered an expert witness with regard to bear and other wildlife in the Project area,” Ms. Remington ruled in an order dated January 16.
The order sets the stage this week for the hearing on a petition from Seneca Wind of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to erect four test towers – roughly 190 feet in height – in three towns of the Northeast Kingdom: Brighton, Ferdinand, and Newark.
The hearing also marks the first time that a Northeast Kingdom wind developer has had to face opposition in erecting temporary test (MET) towers on ridgelines to measure wind and other meteorological conditions as a preliminary step in exploring a site for their wind project.
“My understanding is that most MET towers just go through,” said Kim Fried, a member of the Newark planning commission speaking in an interview Monday.
“Some people in town thought they were cell towers, and they were applauding it.”
Both the town of Newark and a citizens’ group known as Newark Neighbors United have been working for more than a year to ensure that area residents understand the proposed towers will not improve their cell phone reception.
At meetings in the school gym that doubles as a town hall they have repeatedly argued that once test towers go up on a site, a wind project is sure to follow.
It’s an assertion that has no basis, according to Seneca’s vice-president of development, John Soininen.
There have been “many, many places where MET towers have been erected that have not resulted in wind projects being built,” he said, speaking by phone last week from his office.
As proposed, Seneca Wind intends to erect four towers: two in Brighton and one in each of the towns of Ferdinand and Newark. Although no formal plans have been presented, the projected wind project with 30 or so turbines would be the largest proposed for the area.
Mr. Soininen, who is expected to testify Wednesday, suggested that opposition at this stage in the permitting process is premature.
He noted the four towers would not require much space or have much of an impact on the environment. All four together would take up just a little over one acre of the 12,000 acres that is presently under control of the company, he said.
Testimony at the hearing is expected to fall mainly on the impact the towers will have on bear, deer, peregrine falcons and wildlife habitat.
Biologists from the Vermont’s Department of Fish and Wildlife have approved the test towers in written, pre-filed testimony with the board.
As a result of mutual undertakings between the developer and state wildlife officials, biologist John Buck testified that “it is very unlikely peregrines will be affected by work associated with the MET tower construction and maintenance.”
Mr. Buck also testified that steps have been taken that “significantly reduced” the risks of falcons colliding with guywires and poles.
Seneca Wind, he added, has agreed to restrict “construction and significant maintenance activities to times outside the nesting period.”
Likewise, Seneca Wind has signed a stipulated agreement with the state that the project “will minimize and avoid indirect impacts to the black bear feeding habitats at the sites in question,” according to department biologist John Austin.
The town of Newark has lined up its own team of professional experts who, in written testimony, essentially argue that not enough research has been conducted by the developer to determine the impact the towers may have on the environment and wildlife.
A professor of zoology at the University of Vermont, Dr. William Kilpatrick, has testified that no surveys have been conducted to demonstrate that the project would have “no undue adverse impact upon rare, threatened, or endangered species or their habitat.”
Newark has also called on one of its own residents, Dr. Fritz Gerhardt, an ecologist and conservation scientist, to testify as an expert.
Among other criticisms of the project, Dr. Gerhardt has characterized Hawk Rock and the three other sites as a “rare and irreplaceable natural area” that should not be disturbed.
“Despite a long history of forest management, the area remains largely natural and dominated by the same natural processes that have shaped this landscape for millennia,” he wrote in his prefiled testimony.
Into this mix of dueling professionals, Newark Neighbors United have introduced two citizens who have no advanced degrees but have what the hearing officer called the experience and the knowledge to testify as experts.
Mr. Fried, the Newark town official who is not part of the citizens’ group, said he was surprised by Ms. Remington’s decision.
“It’s just the opposite of what has been happening in Vermont,” he said. “It’s the regulators and the lawyers who have been running things. All the regular citizens are is a nuisance.”
Winston Newland, who said he has spent 60 years walking the area around Hawk Rock – the Newark site picked for a tower – testified he knew some of the nearby caves where bears den up for the winter.
“The bear hive up in the ledges in the winter time, yup,” he said, according to a record of his pre-filed testimony. “I’ve been gonna to put a trail camera just to see, but I’ve been to these places and seen ’em, and you can tell there’s a bear in there, ’cause there’s steam coming out, you can see the frost of steam coming out of these caves.”
A photograph accompanying Mr. Newland’s testimony places a cave “900 feet from the proposed MET tower,” according to the exhibit.
Valerie Desmarais, who lives “four miles southwest of Hawk Rock,” testified that her expertise about bears and the area stemmed from training bear dogs and traveling by horseback “over 700 miles a summer” through some of the most remote spots in the areas selected for the test towers.
During last summer she made three site visits to document bear habitat and food sources, she said.
Testimony offered by Ms. Desmarais concluded that the “cumulative impacts and fragmentations due to clearing, road construction and human intrusion” for the project would have a detrimental effect on the long-term health of the region’s bear habitat and population.
In August, she testified she accompanied Mr. Newland to observe den sites and game trails in the Hawk Rock area.
While the two citizens will be allowed to testify as experts, Ms. Remington said she would keep testimony restrictive to the narrow scope of the project.
The one-day hearing is expected to conclude on Wednesday with a decision to follow some time next month.
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