Steens Mountain Threatened by Massive Wind Development
April 5, 2012: Plans to build an industrial-scale wind facility on Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon’s high desert were challenged by the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) and Audubon Society of Portland today. The lawsuit seeks to block what the conservation groups claim is an illegal project by the Department of the Interior that would forever change an otherwise wild and beautiful landscape.
In December, the Secretary of the Interior approved a plan allowing the developer to build up to 70 wind turbines and a high-capacity transmission line on the remote and iconic mountain, located in southeast Oregon. Electricity generated by the wind project will be sent to southern California as part of an agreement with Southern California Edison; approximately half of the project cost will be subsidized by taxpayers according to project financing documents. Critics argue that Oregonians should not be asked to sacrifice Steens Mountain to a Washington-based, New York-financed company in order to generate electricity for California.
Transmission lines for the project would cut across an area protected by Congress in 2000 and the project would fragment one of the largest undeveloped landscapes left in the Great Basin. Wind turbines, transmission lines, access roads and associated development pose threats to migratory routes and breeding areas for sensitive species such as bighorn sheep, Golden eagles, and Greater sage-grouse, a bird recently recognized by the Department of the Interior’s own Fish and Wildlife Service as being in danger of extinction, due primarily to fragmentation of its sagebrush habitat.
“Of all the places in Oregon’s high desert, this is perhaps the worst place for wind development,” said Brent Fenty, Executive Director of ONDA. “Steens Mountain is to Oregon’s deserts what Crater Lake is to our forests; a truly special place we should protect for future generations.”
In 2000, Congress passed a law requiring that the Secretary of the Interior protect the “long-term ecological integrity” and “character” of a half-million acre areas of public land on Steens Mountain. That area includes 170,000 acres Congress protected as Wilderness. Wind turbines reaching higher than 400 feet will be visible from popular vistas including the mountain’s popular summit overlook.
The proposed 230-kilovolt transmission line is several times the size necessary for the current proposal, thereby enabling extensive future development on the mountain.
"We support responsible renewable energy development, but this is the antithesis" said Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director for Portland Audubon. "There is nothing green about this project. It puts imperiled wildlife populations at risk and opens one of our great wild landscapes to industrial development."
ONDA and Audubon are represented by the public interest law firm, Advocates for the West.