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Habitat for birds? Or solar panels?

The rolling, nature-rich, 876-acre, city-owned Imperatrice property in the foothills across the freeway from Ashland have long been eyed as a prime spot for an energy-producing solar farm — but as the City Council studied it Monday, they got an earful from environmentalists: It’s prime habitat for a rare sparrow and two struggling species of wild plants, so maybe put your array somewhere else, they suggested.

Acquired by the city in 1996 as a receiving site for effluent from the city wastewater treatment plant, a plan ultimately rejected by the council, the rolling grassland and oak woodlands is home to the grasshopper sparrow, which is called that because its trill sounds like a grasshopper, said Pepper Trail, conservation co-chairman for Rogue Valley Audubon Society and forensic ornithologist with the National Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland.

“We believe this is the largest breeding colony in at least Western Oregon, if not the whole state,” said Trail, “and it’s known to be sensitive to disturbances, so any kind of road construction or solar array could cause them to abandon the site. It has happened in other places.”

The bird is “almost gone” from the Willamette Valley, because of habitat loss, leaving Imperatrice as its prime habitat he said. Trail suggested that “the proposed industrial scale development, while very important, we hope it goes on rooftops, the airport, the university, median strips on the freeway.”

The council on Monday went ahead and authorized completion of an RFP (Request for Proposal) on construction of a large-scale, 10 to 12 megawatts, solar generation project with the intent to receive “market-based proposals” so the city can know the cost of its electric output and when that could come online, according to staff analysis. The RFP, which is almost done, would go out in mid-October and would be reviewed in November.

Kristi Mergenthaler of the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy told the council that the bird’s population has dipped by 67 percent in the last 30 years. She said, in an interview that there are only 32 “singing males and their sweeties” left.

“We support solar and conservation and if the city develops it,” said Mergenthaler, “let’s look at other locations. Do parking lots, degraded land. This (Imperatrice) is not a wasteland.”

The plant kingdom also seeks refuge in the Ashland foothills, with the Southern Oregon buttercup, found only in Jackson County, and the Round Leaf Fillary, once thought extinct in Oregon, finding refuge on the Imperatrice land, said Megenthaler.

The land is also being eyed as part of a trail system that covers the whole eastern viewshed from Ashland, to the summit of Grizzly Peak, said Mergenthaler, and is being invited to link with the 4,500-acre Grizzly Peak Preserve of the Selberg Institute, just to the east.

Botanist Gretchen Vos of Ashland said it’s a “red flag” that the council is sending out an RFP. “The solar array makes sense but it seems real fuzzy,” she said. “Does it make sense centralized on rooftops? It seems the council is going for something because it seems the right and green way to go, but there is solar all over the desert that are ruining all kinds of habitat.”

City Administrator Kelly Madding said the city has done studies, including a biological study that identified the vulnerable species, and that its habitat and needs are featured in the RFP and would be evaluated by potential solar contractors.

The Imperatrice land, according to the Rogue Valley Audubon website, “is a relatively intact habitat that supports a significant breeding colony of Grasshopper Sparrows. This is a bird whose population in many areas is declining and it has been designated as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in the Oregon Conservation Strategy Program.”

In the city’s deliberations about possibly solarizing the property, Councilman Dennis Slattery says solar activists are amenable to keeping the array below the Talent Irrigation Ditch, which is about a fourth of the way up the mountain.

Slattery notes he is a member of SOLC and that these two environmentally-minded interests, solar and wildlife, “need to figure it out. I am open to their (SOLC) wishes and desires on the property. We want renewable energy and it’s got to go somewhere. No place will be perfect.”

Slattery noted that Ashland is bound by an agreement with Bonneville Power Administration to purchase their power through 2028, regardless if Ashland creates alternative sources, so, “The point is, can it be built at a marginal increase (in cost to the city) Is there wiggle room with BPA? Is there some midway point where it provides (net) energy for Ashland?”

In the council deliberations, Slattery said, “We’re trying to decide, is the solar plant is going to be a benefit or a cost to the city? There are people who are going to tell you that you should never build it and others who say we should build it tomorrow. With the RFP, people will provide us with facts. If it’s going to be a (net) cost, that will be fairly obvious. For far too long, it’s been conjecture. We need facts.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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