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Iberdrola pays $1M to lessen bear impact

MONTPELIER – A $1 million plan to help mitigate the effects on the black bear population in southern Vermont will finally clear the way for the start of construction of Iberdrola Renewables’ Deerfield wind turbine project in Searsburg and Readsboro.

The bear mitigation plan, which was approved by the Vermont Public Service Board last week, means money for additional bear studies and money to buy bear habitat in the towns of Stratton and Jamaica, according to Forrest “Frosty” Hammond, a wildlife biologist with the Agency of Natural Resources.

The settlement ends a six-year delay in the construction of the project: the state’s wildlife experts had opposed the project because of the destruction of prime black bear habitat, specifically high-elevation bear-scarred beech trees.

According to Hammond about 70 acres of bear-scarred beech trees, whose nuts are important bear food, would be destroyed by the project.

Iberdrola wants to build 15 turbines, eight in Searsburg and seven in Readsboro. The 30 megawatts of electricity will be sold to Green Mountain Power.

The project would be the first commercial wind energy project built in a national forest, the Green Mountain National Forest.

The agreements mean that Iberdrola can start construction on the project, which will be built an on adjoining ridgeline to the state’s first commercial wind project, owned by Green Mountain Power.

Hammond, a black bear expert who is helping to lead the state’s study of the black bear population in southern Vermont, said the new agreement was a big improvement over the original permit granted to Iberdrola by the Public Service Board. The Agency of Natural Resources, along with the nonprofit Vermont Natural Resources Council, had fought the PSB permit because of the impact on critical black bear habitat, Hammond said. He had earlier testified against the project during PSB hearings.

Paul Copleman, a spokesman for Iberdrola, said Friday that a quarter of the $1 million will go for additional bear studies, and the balance to the conservation of additional land for bear habitat.

“It’s exciting to be moving forward,” said Copleman, who said that the significant construction for the project wouldn’t start until next year. He said Iberdrola hopes to start generating electricity from the Deerfield project by the end of 2017.

Catherine Gjessing, an attorney with the Agency of Natural Resources who helped broker the new agreement, couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

Hammond said that the land in Stratton was owned by Meadowsend Ltd., a forestry company involved with Iberdrola on another wind project – the controversial Stiles Brook wind turbine project in Windham and Grafton.

Hammond said that the state had been trying to conserve the Meadowsend parcel in Stratton for quite a while. “An infusion of funds from Iberdrola will finish that project,” he said of the Stratton conservation project.

Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, a statewide environmental group, said while his organization had signed off on the mitigation plan, he said VNRC was still concerned about the bear habitat destruction. “We remain disappointed. We are pleased that the amount of mitigation is much more extensive than was originally required by the PSB,” Shupe said. “But not all of the land has been identified for bear mitigation.”

He said the Stratton land addressed “secondary impacts,” and not immediate impacts from the Deerfield project.

“This mitigation agreement is much better than the state’s certificate of public good,” Shupe said.

“We supported the change. We initially opposed the project and we’ve been very open about that,” said Hammond. “This is better for the bear resources and that’s why we support the change.”