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Wildlife Hinders Wind Farm Strategy

by Kathie Durbin
The Columbian, August 1, 2009

Turbines not the obvious "winner" state initially thought

To former Washington State Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland, the concept was an obvious win-win:

The Department of Natural Resources would actively seek opportunities to lease state trust land across Washington for development of wind farms.

The power the wind turbines generated would boost the state's renewable energy profile and help utilities meet renewable energy targets required by a 2006 voter-approved initiative.

The money the leases generated would, in turn fill the coffers of the Common School construction account, which provides funding for school construction around the state.

But like other clean energy ideas, this one has run into unforeseen complications.

The DNR and wind power companies began collaborating on leasing state land for wind turbines in 2003. The program grew quickly, especially after passage of Initiative 937, which requires utilities with more than 25,000 customers to get 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Today DNR has 24 active wind power leases in various stages. Five wind farms with 65 turbines operate on state trust land, all in Eastern Washington. The leases yield $670,000 a year.

However, the DNR failed to consider whether allowing wind turbines on state land might conflict with the compact the state made with the federal government in 1997 when it promised to manage its land in a way that would minimize harm to threatened and endangered species.

And Sutherland didn't foresee that some uses might not be compatible with the giant spinning turbine blades that feed renewable energy into the power grid.

The issues came into sharp focus last month when a scientific panel concluded that a proposed wind project on a ridge near Willapa Bay would harm the marbled murrelet, a small bird that would be forced to fly a gantlet of wind turbine blades if the project is built.

And other potential conflicts loom. In the Columbia River Gorge, SDS Lumber Co. is exploring with DNR the possibility of expanding its proposed Whistling Ridge wind project north onto state trust land. A portion of that land is designated a "special emphasis area" for the northern spotted owl.

Yet even today, the DNR has no system for reviewing lease proposals to see if they could harm endangered birds.

Clay Sprague, the DNR's deputy supervisor for uplands, acknowledges as much. "We support alternative energy development, but we are trying to figure out how we can site it" in an environmentally sensitive way, he said. "We want to get ahead of the curve."

Incompatible use

(AP files) Marbled murrelet numbers on the West Coast are down 34 percent since 2001. The marbled murrelet, a robin-size seabird, nests high on the mossy limbs of old-growth conifers near the sea. Since 1992, it has been listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, mainly because of loss of its old-growth forest habitat. The only significant patch of murrelet habitat remaining in Southwest Washington is a 13,748-acre patch of old forest on DNR land known as the Nemah Block.

Coincidentally, that's the same patch of land on which Energy Northwest, a Tri-Cities energy consortium, wants to install the first wind farm in Western Washington, a project called Radar Ridge.

Until recently, the DNR had no inventory of murrelet habitat. But last September, a panel of scientists ranked the patches of old coastal forest remaining on DNR land. The Nemah Block scored the highest of any site in Southwest Washington.

In January, Peter Goldmark succeeded Sutherland as public lands commissioner. Ken Berg, manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Washington Fish and Wildlife Office, met with Goldmark in February. In a followup letter, he requested that DNR "review all ongoing renewable energy development leasing activities within the range of the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet to ensure that they are consistent" with the state habitat plan.

Berg noted that the DNR had recently published its own recommendations for conserving habitat for the murrelet. "You might wish to enlist the science team that prepared the report to help review the leasing activities," he wrote.

The Pacific Seabird Group, an international scientific panel, warned Goldmark that "without a long-term strategy for marbled murrelet conservation on state lands, the demise of the murrelet population in southwest Washington will likely be accelerated."

Politics in the picture

Advocates for the Radar Ridge project, including public utility districts in four counties that have invested at least $1.7 million in the project so far, saw a looming threat.

They took their concerns to state Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, who represents part or all of Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Pacific and Wahkiakum counties.

Hatfield represents a district hard-hit by the restrictions on logging that followed the 1990 listing of the northern spotted owl. He doesn't try to hide his frustration with what he regards as a conspiracy to kill the Radar Ridge project.

"We are continually being told, 'Stop what you are doing and start doing something else,'" he said. "During the spotted owl crisis, there was no talk of the marbled murrelet. The thought was, 'Try tourism.' So now we have Initiative 937, we have all this wind power, the schools would benefit, we would have green energy on the west side, and a $200 million investment in Pacific County."

The new scientific study that concludes murrelets would be harmed or killed by wind turbines will make it much more difficult and costly for Energy Northwest to get the Radar Ridge project permitted.

Project leader David Kobus says he has hired the region's top murrelet biologist to study the impact of the project. He says he's confident that the company will be able to refute those conclusions and proceed with development of Radar Ridge, though he says the project might have to be scaled back.

Berg of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says he has been talking with state officials about how their agencies can work together to help Washington meet its renewable energy goals.

"We are very much interested in working collaboratively with the state and with industry, and we think the best way to do that efficiently is through good site planning, helping to pick good places to develop wind energy in a fish-and-wildlife-friendly manner," Berg said.

"Energy Northwest didn't come in to talk to us before they selected this site with DNR," he said. "We would like to work together to give prospective developers good advice. We don't want to have another Radar Ridge scenario, where someone has sunk a lot of money into a site that can't be permitted efficiently. We recognize that time is money for them."

Kathie Durbin
Wildlife Hinders Wind Farm Strategy
The Columbian, August 1, 2009

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