Environmentalists attempt to block development in southeast Oregon

May 21, 2010

As the push for wind power has increased nationwide, windmills have become a common sight on western horizons. Ranchers in various regions throughout the West now find themselves carefully weighing the option of leasing their land for wind development in order to increase revenue. Whether or not they sign the lease, the choice is up to the individual landowner. However, ranchers of southeastern Oregon’s Steens Mountain may soon find the decision taken out of their hands as environmental groups petition to make the choice for them.

The petition was submitted by the Oregon Natural Deserts Association (ONDA), with support from the Portland, OR, Audubon Society, as well as the Defenders of Wildlife. It requests that Steens Mountain be excluded from wind development, adding it to a list of protected regions around the state, areas such as Crater Lake National Park, and the Columbia Gorge scenic area. It is the second attempt by ONDA to prevent private development of wind energy in the region.

It began when Steens area rancher Hoyt Wilson signed an agreement with Columbia Energy Partners, of Vancouver, WA, to allow windmills to be constructed on roughly 3,000 acres of his property near Mann Lake. Seeing further potential in the area, Columbia Energy soon agreed to two more leases on a neighboring ranch and one on state property. It was then that ONDA got involved, filing its first petition with the Energy Facility Siting Committee (EFSC), the state entity which oversees placement of energy facilities in Oregon. At that time, the lease on Wilson’s land, which became known as the Echanis Project, had already received their permits from Harney County, and the other three sites were undergoing review by the county land use committee. Under state law, wind energy sites generating less than 105 megawatts may be permitted by the counties, and larger projects must come before the state committee. ONDA filed a petition arguing that the four projects should be considered as one, and alleged that Columbia Energy had merely broken up the sites in order to avoid scrutiny at the state level. Harney County Judge Steve Glasty points out that, were those allegations true, it would have been a fruitless effort on the developer’s part.

"Our process is every bit as stringent as the state’s," he says. "Although the sites are located close together, they have different power purchase agreements, and are leased from different landowners." The state committee agreed, and ONDA’s first petition was declined.

In their second petition, filed earlier this month, ONDA points out that two of the leases, though on a private ranch, are contained within an area known as the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area. Established in 2000, the CMPA was a compromise between Harney County’s need for economic viability and the Clinton Administrations’ desire to declare the region a national monument. Covering an area of nearly half a million acres encompassing both private and public land, its stated goal is to "maintain the cultural, economic, ecological, and social health of the Steens Mountain area." Under ONDA’s interpretation of the act, the development of wind energy is counter to that goal.

"Because the Steens Act prohibits development within the CMPA that would alter the character of Steens Mountain, any attempt to permit industrial development within the CMPA violates this Act," they argued.

Though Hoyt Wilson’s ranch lies just outside of the CMPA’s borders, he remembers its formation and goals as well.

"(The CMPA) was kind of a whole new ballgame for the federal government," he remembers, it tries to elevate the land users onto equal footing with the environmentalists and recreation users. It was kind of a compromise. It was supposed to promote the economic well-being of those that own property and use the mountain for commercial purposes. It was supposed to protect their interests, as well as protecting the mountain."

One thing it was never supposed to do, according to Wilson, was thwart the actions of private landowners.

"It does not preclude development on private lands," he asserts. "What happens on private lands was never supposed to be affected, but ONDA wants to take it to that level."

Judge Grasty agrees that ONDA may be overstepping its bounds by attempting to influence what happens on private property. "What they are trying to do is change rules that will effectively change land-use law," he says. "They want everything done at the state level, and they don’t want local communities to have a voice." Grasty also points out that, for many ranches, wind energy revenue might allow ranches to be passed on that would otherwise be eventually broken up.

"(Wilson’s) ranch is one of the most beautiful ranches in our community," he says. "If keeping it in one viable piece isn’t environmentally friendly, I don’t know what is."

Concerned about losing the potential jobs and money that wind power could bring to Harney County, Grasty also worries about the havoc that conservation groups are wreaking on the economies of small communities throughout the West. "They have all the power," he points out. "State and federal law doesn’t provide any power for you or I to sue in order to enable something to happen, all the power is centered on stopping something from happening."

Hoyt Wilson is also concerned about what the future holds for the rural way of life.

"When you look at the rural West, the only thing that we have is our natural resources," he says. "If you’re going to make a living in this part of the world, you’re natural resources dependent, whether it’s farming, ranching, timber, perhaps even mining. What they’re trying to do is eliminate or curtail natural resource exploitation, and that’s all we’ve got. They’re killing these little places." — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent