Environmental study says wind power projects wouldn’t ruin Steens Mountain beauty

"It is nice that a third party and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has validated our position that the visual impact is minimal," said Jon Norling , spokesman for Columbia Energy Partners of Vancouver, project developers.

Opponents, however, remain skeptical that roughly 200 wind turbines, some towering 415 feet above the juniper and sagebrush, wouldn’t detract from the grandeur of the 9,733-foot fault-block mountain and its wildlife.

Released last week, the draft study was prepared by Entrix Environmental Solutions for the Bureau of Land Management. The document says the proposed wind turbines and power lines would be visible from less than one-half of 1 percent of the 170,000-acre Steens Wilderness.

Columbia Energy Partners hopes to erect wind turbines on or near the mountain in four wind farm projects each generating about 104 megawatts. Entrix evaluated the $300 million Echanis Wind Project , already approved by Harney County, plus the cumulative impacts of the so-called East and West Ridge projects and the Riddle Mountain Project, all on private land.

The Riddle Mountain Project is north of Steens Mountain. All three unapproved wind farm projects are under study by the Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council.

Together, the four wind energy projects would cost about $1 billion, bring up to 150 new jobs to Harney County during construction and leave behind about 12 permanent maintenance jobs per project, Norling said. They would generate enough renewable energy to power more than 120,000 homes.

The Echanis Wind Project alone would encompass about 10,000 acres and construction could start early next year. The West and East Ridge wind power projects and the each would be about the same size. Construction is tentatively planned to start on those in 2012 and 2013 if they get permits.

The environmental study made no recommendations on which of two proposed power transmission lines should serve the wind projects. One proposed route is a 29-mile configuration that parallels an existing electrical transmission route crossing the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge northwest of Steens Mountain. The other is a 46-mile configuration mostly on private land.

The BLM will take comments on the draft study until Aug. 30 by e-mail at OR_Burns_Mail@blm.gov or by mail, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 28910 Highway 20 West, Hines, OR 97738. A final study is expected in October or November.

Fenty said keeping the Steens Wilderness viewscape uncluttered by wind turbines shouldn’t be the only consideration for Oregonians.

"There are a number of places outside the wilderness that are treasured by the general public and are on public lands," he said. "No one has ever argued that this is just about the wilderness."

The BLM manages 428,000 acres on and around Steens Mountain, including the Steens Wilderness. About 67,000 acres of private land also lies on and around the mountain, and the wind towers are proposed on that land.

By Richard Cockle, The Oregonian, www.oregonian.com