Projects wouldn't detract from high-desert beauty

PORTLAND — A draft environmental study has found that four proposed wind energy projects on the north end of Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon would have little effect on its pristine high-desert 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, Wash., 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.

"It's a simple idea of right idea, wrong place," said Brent Fenty, spokesman for the 1,200-member Oregon Natural Desert Association, an environmental group in Bend.

More than 20 groups in Oregon have voiced concern about the plans, Fenty said.

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 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 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 begin early next year. The West and East Ridge projects 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.

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