A federal appeals court has effectively reversed the approval of a large wind energy project in southeast Oregon, citing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s inaccurate environmental review and possible impacts to the greater sage grouse.
A decision released Thursday by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found the BLM review had not adequately assessed the population of greater sage grouse during winter at the proposed Echanis wind energy facility in Harney County.
“It’s exactly what we’ve been arguing almost since day one,” said Brent Fenty, executive director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association, a Bend-based environmental group that brought the lawsuit.
To Harney County Judge Steve Grasty, the move means a missed chance for private landowners at the project site to make money and keep that land intact, and a missed chance for more revenue for the county that he said has seen slow development and growth.
“One more lost opportunity for our community,” Grasty said, “and for the environment.”
Columbia Energy Partners had proposed the Echanis Wind Energy Project, a 104-megawatt wind facility, on about 10,500 acres of private land. The project called for 40 to 69 wind turbines and a 230-kilovolt transmission line to bring the energy to the electrical grid.
The BLM had approved the project and the transmission line.
Harney County had granted the project a conditional-use permit, and Columbia got a 20-year contract with Southern California Edison to buy the wind energy. That contract had already been canceled before the court’s decision.
ONDA and the Audubon Society of Portland challenged the BLM’s environmental review of the project, arguing it had failed to adequately assess sage grouse populations in winter at the site near Steens Mountain – which environmental groups argue acts as an important host for sage grouse, golden eagles, elk and bighorn sheep and that Oregonians value for its wildness. The project needed the environmental review partly because the transmission line’s right of way would cross public lands. The U.S. District Court sided with the federal government, prompting ONDA’s appeal to the higher court.
Greater sage grouse need sagebrush year-round, using the habitat for mating, nesting and rearing their broods. They also eat pretty much only sagebrush through the winter. Loss of sagebrush habitat has contributed to sage grouse population decline in Oregon.
The appeals court decision noted that the BLM completed no surveys on whether sage grouse were at the site during the winter. The BLM determined – based on surveys at nearby sites – that no sage grouse use the site through the winter. The decision also noted that some sage grouse were found at the nearby site that BLM based its data on, so BLM’s method should have resulted in assuming the birds’ presence anyway.
The errors in the environmental review had consequences, the decision said.
“The inaccurate information and unsupported assumptions materially impeded informed decision-making and public participation,” the decision said.
Without appropriate data on sage grouse use of the Echanis site during the winter, it was not possible to begin to assess impacts to sage grouse or to determine any mitigation measures, the decision said. If the BLM had assumed the Echanis site provides winter sage grouse habitat, then the habitat designation of that site would have prevented the project from proceeding there.
The defendants had argued mitigation measures would cure any possible prejudice from a faulty analysis. But mitigation measures “are not a panacea for inadequate data collection and analysis,” the decision said.
Attorneys and representatives for BLM and Columbia could not be reached for comment.
Fenty called the wind project the “right idea in the wrong place” and noted ONDA’s 2009 report that analyzes wildlife habitats and landscapes in Oregon’s High Desert to identify areas where wind projects would have the least impact. Fenty noted “hundreds of thousands of acres across Oregon’s High Desert that should’ve been considered long before Steens Mountain.”
But Grasty questioned the ability of courts to interpret land management-related decisions, saying land managers should be given deference because they have the expertise that courts lack.
“The rules changed,” Grasty said of the process, noting that the BLM had already approved the project. “It’s incredibly frustrating.”
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