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Steens Mountain: A Green Vs. Green Debate

By Matt McDonald
Published On: May 21 2012 10:15:23 AM CDT
Updated On: May 21 2012 11:23:06 AM CDT

In the quest to move Oregon toward renewable energy, there are no easy answers.

Protecting the Landscape

"What do we want to give up for renewable energy in Oregon? Do we want to give up a place like this?? asks Matt Little, conservation director for the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association.

We are standing at the base of the nearly 10,000-foot peaks that make up the east ridge of the Steens Mountain Wilderness.

It's taken 3 1/2f hours of driving east from Bend, then south from Burns to reach this spot alongside Mann Lake.

Pelicans are soaring above, circling up towards the peaks, riding the thermal air currents that flow along the mountainside. Other than the wind, the only sound are the birds. Thousands of them, scattered across the shallow, weed-filled lake.

?I don't think people would want them on the top of Crater Lake or the Grand Canyon," says Little, referring to the proposed wind towers.

The Echanis wind power project, planned by Columbia Energy Partners, has obtained its final approval to be built on private land.

While it's hard to imagine the turbines, each said to be comparable in size to the Statue of Liberty, towering down on this wilderness, it's equally hard to imagine halting a project that produces clean, renewable energy and jobs in a county with 12.5 percent unemployment.

The Voice of the People

"We need jobs. We need to use our renewable resources," said Pete Runnels, a Harney County commissioner.

The Echanis project would bring 100 construction jobs and 8-12 jobs long-term.

Though the numbers seem small, Harney County's population is equally small. Runnels says by comparison, it would be like bringing 1,500 new jobs to Portland.

His deep love for the Steens Mountains and the appreciation for the natural beauty is obvious within a minute of our conversation.

"I can remember hiking into a creek, and there was a chipmunk that was sick. I mean, you could tell, it just wasn't running from you, it would walk and stagger. And caring for that, the community of nature all around, it's a memory that's stuck in my mind forever," Runnels says, recounting a fond childhood memory in the Steens.

It's a love for the landscape born from a lifetime in the community. A life that has led him to stay, when many others have left.

Harney County still is not up to the employment level it saw in the 1980s when lumber was king of the town.

For Runnels, the owner of the local Figaro's pizza franchise, Harney County is home, whether the economy sinks or swims. He is not excited to see the blinking red lights on the wind towers at night, but he's also frustrated.

For years, he, along with others in the county government, have been working to bring jobs to Harney County.

While he recognizes the projects' environmental impact, the trade-off in mitigation and community benefits outweigh the negatives, in his view.

But the project may never come to fruition.

ONDA has sued the Secretary of Interior, accusing his agency of violating the Steens Act in approving the transmission line needed to carry electricity from the turbines to the power grid.

That's put county commissioners, like Runnels, on the sidelines of a lawsuit that directly impacts their community.

"This has to be just how the Native Americans felt when the white man came west. You talk about being run off your land and not having a voice in your land -- we're reliving it,? said Runnels.

The Ranch Owner's Struggle

County commissioners are not the only ones feeling left out of the decision.

"All too often, the decisions the government agencies make and the follow up litigation, does not involve the people that are effected most and most directly,? says Stacy Davies, manager of the Roaring Springs Ranch. The transmission line will cross his property.

"We have mixed feelings about the project,? says Davies. He's turned down several projects on the land he manages, but he has yet to turn down the transmission line crossing his land. No claim of eminent domain can be made, if a power pole is to go up, Davies will have to give his approval.

A combination of income potential and simply being a 'good neighbor' has left him open and willing to give that okay. In a land where ranches are measured in the tens of thousands of acres, if not hundreds of thousands, being a good neighbor takes on new meaning.

Davies makes a poignant argument against wind power.

The project will be subsidized through tax breaks and other incentives. In his view, if it can't pay for itself without incentives, it does not make economic sense to build it in the first place.

Instead, he advocates for building projects closer to where the power is needed.

Those projects will also have some negative impacts on the environment. As part of all large-scale efforts, energy projects have to mitigate the damage they cause to specific environmental parameters.

For example, the developer of a wind turbine that is expected to lead to the death of five golden eagles a year may be required to retrofit 30 power poles (that may also cause five eagle deaths a year) to make them safe and balance the losses.

Davies advocates for a different form of mitigation. Why not allow companies who develop large-scale projects buy conservation easements on land, like his own, providing a long-term protection from development?

The Long Term

The long-term view takes on the most significant impact for everyone involved in this green vs. green debate.

While ONDA points to the long-term need to sustain wide open, wild spaces, Harney County officials argue the Echanis wind power project is actually the best way to protect the land.

Harney County Judge Steven Grasty believes if the project is squashed, ranchers will feel they cannot make money on their land as they see fit.

Already, he says, some ranch owners have come to him with plans to break up thousands of acres into smaller plots. Trophy cabins could, in theory, dot the landscape -- their roads, power lines and construction potentially resulting in an even bigger environmental impact than the Echanis project.

ONDA says that is not likely. Land use regulations would prevent most, if not all, of those houses from being built. But, like the rules that governed the Steens Moutain Wilderness prior to the Steens Act in 2000, land use labels can be changed.

The Immediate Future

The lawsuit is between ONDA and the defendant, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Filed early this year, it's yet to be heard in open court. The secretary's office declined to comment, pending the resolution of the case, Columbia Energy partners declined as well.

For now, it appears the final decision on the transmission line, and thus likely the wind towers, will land in the hands of a judge. Likely, that judge will be hundreds of miles from the Steens, making a decision based upon the arguments of legal representatives for ONDA and the Interior Department.

If the project is halted, it's possible the proposed transmission line could be moved to cross the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. That, too, likely would face a legal challenge, but the county has an easement in place that may bolster their argument.

Oregon and Clean Energy

Oregon has set a self-imposed goal of reaching 25 percent clean energy use by the year 2025. Coupled with federal goals and the accompanying tax credits, the state has become a focal point for the green energy movement.

Geothermal test sites are being drilled in the Newberry National Volcanic Monument area, south of Bend. Wave energy is being tested off the Oregon coast at various points. Solar panels cover a hillside next to the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls.

Wind turbines dot the landscape, particularly in Northeastern Oregon. Ironically, some of those turbines have been shut down on occasion, due to a complex relationship with electricity demand and commitments to purchase power already being produced elsewhere.

As the state pushes towards its goals, questions about the impact of building out ways to harness renewable energy will rise, some being decided in the courts.

Proving one clear thing, for the entire state: There are no easy answers.

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