Ruggedly beautiful Steens Mountain stands in an area of southeast Oregon so isolated that it’s barely changed since cattle king Pete French arrived in the late 1800s.
Coyotes yelp at sundown. Drivers are so few that they wave to each other as they pass. Campers, hunters and bird-watchers trek from across the state to breathe in the majestic emptiness and to gaze from the Steens summit across a seemingly endless tapestry of high desert and open range.
But soon, the scenery will change.
Harney County has cleared Columbia Energy Partners of Vancouver to build a wind farm on the mountain’s north slope. By year’s end, 415-foot turbines could start rising from the juniper and sagebrush, among thousands of towers that developers are stampeding to build across eastern Oregon.
In addition, Columbia Energy has two more wind projects in the works for the Steens slope, plus another for Riddle Mountain to the northeast. A Houston company is scouting 18,000 acres to the south for a wind farm in the Pueblo Mountains, and more could follow.
“There are a number of sites being prospected by developers,” said John Audley of Portland’s Renewable Northwest Project, a coalition of companies and groups that promotes renewable-energy projects. “These prospectors are like old gold miners.”
Aside from wind farms, thousands of acres on Steens Mountain are open to homebuilding.
“We counted over 90 sites that you could come in tomorrow and make application to put homes on,” said Steve Grasty, chairman of the Harney County commissioners. One landowner won clearance to build hundreds of homes near the Steens’ Fish Lake.
But while some environmentalists are dismayed by the prospect of development on Steens Mountain — even if it’s green-friendly wind turbines — county officials are thrilled.
“We have an opportunity to put a $1.25 billion investment into this community,” said Grasty, referring to the value of Columbia Energy’s four wind projects and an accompanying transmission line.
“Holy mackerel, and it is an environmentally sensitive way to do it.”
To outsiders, it may seem unthinkable to build on the flank of an Oregon treasure. But to Harney County, it’s simple math.
A century after the close of the Western frontier, the county retains its gun-rack rawness. Residents are self-reliant, a necessity in a county bigger than nine states but with just 7,700 residents.
But the economy, long struggling, has been trampled in the recent recession. December’s jobless rate nudged 18 percent (compared with 11 percent statewide), not far from 1980′s record 21.8 percent, said Jason Yohannan, a state labor economist in La Grande.
The demise of RV-maker Monaco Coach in 2008-09 left Harney County with no manufacturing, Yohannan said, a change from the late 1970s when more than 1,000 residents worked as loggers or in the old Edward Hines Lumber Co. sawmill.
Columbia Energy unfurls the promise of a new industry — and jobs: 150 during an estimated four years of construction, plus 50 to 75 for maintenance after that, said Chris Crowley, Columbia Energy’s president.
Audley said that’s hard to pass up. “There hasn’t been a significant economic investment in Harney County in a long time,” he said. “For better or worse, this is the only industry I know of that’s investing (an average of) $700 million (per wind project) in rural Oregon.”
Grasty said he’s not worried about losing tourism because of the wind turbines. County tourism has grown only 5 percent in 20 years, he said, and the wind farms will be contained.
“They are islands of private property in a sea of public land,” he said.
So far, only Columbia Energy’s first wind farm has been approved: the $300 million Echanis Wind Project, with 40 to 60 wind turbines across 10,000 acres. It’s expected to produce 104 megawatts, enough to power some 30,000 homes.
The project hinges on U.S. Bureau of Land Management approval of the transmission line, which has two possible configurations: a 29-mile line possibly paralleling an existing line that crosses the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge just northwest of Steens Mountain, and a 46-mile line across mostly private land. Crowley expects to gain approval in the fall and launch construction on Echanis soon after.
Columbia Energy recently shelved its West Ridge and East Ridge wind projects headed for the Steens’ north flank, in the face of opposition from the Audubon Society of Portland and the Oregon Natural Desert Association in Bend.
Liz Nysson, spokeswoman for the desert association, said visitors will be appalled to find “industrial-scale wind development” on the slopes of Steens Mountain. The Echanis project, she said, also will be built on habitat for falcons, golden eagles and sage grouse, which is being considered for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Bob Sallinger, the Portland Audubon Society’s conservation director, called the area “an incredibly valuable landscape from a wildlife standpoint.”
“We have a gold-rush mentality in this state about wind,” he said. “We could look back in 10 or 15 years and wish we had done it differently and more thoughtfully.”
Both groups also accuse Columbia Energy of dividing the Steens projects into three pieces of about 104 megawatts each to skirt the state scrutiny that kicks in for projects of 105 megawatts or more.
But Crowley insisted the projects are legitimately separate: “They are on separate pieces of property. They will have separate substations. They will have separate financing.”
He also said Columbia Energy won’t sit on the West and East Ridge projects for long. The company expects to begin construction on one in 2012 and the other in 2013, when it also plans to launch construction on the Riddle Mountain project. All three will be about the same size as Echanis.
Crowley marveled at the area’s wind power. During a 24-hour test Jan. 10, the company clocked an average wind speed on the Steens’ north side of 41 mph.
“There is nowhere else with a resource like this in Oregon,” he said.
Cattle rancher Hoyt Wilson, meanwhile, has mixed feelings about his decision to lease land to Columbia Energy for the Echanis project.
“It’s not something I’m looking forward to,” said Wilson, 67, as he stood in a chilly breeze last week outside the shop and office for his 28,000-acre Mann Lake Ranch.
He remembers when cattle ranching was lucrative. “It used to be a lot of fun to ranch,” he said. “All you had to worry about was Mother Nature.”
But environmental lawsuits have forced the BLM to cut back on the number of cattle and amount of time they can graze on federal lands, pinching him and other ranchers, he said.
“It does you no good if you can run 1,000 cows on your own land for nine months, but you can only run 500 on BLM land for three months,” Wilson said. In other words, what happens to the other 500 cattle? Cows need so much room to graze, that even ranchers with significant land holdings rely on leasing federal lands for part of the year.
Wilson also worried that, after he and his wife die, his son and two daughters wouldn’t be able to afford the taxes on a property worth $4 million but generating no more than $60,000 a year in revenue.
The Columbia Energy deal will enable the family to keep the ranch intact and in the family. In exchange for a 20-year lease, he’ll receive a percentage of the gross sales from the wind farm’s output — about $5,000 to $7,000 a year per turbine.
“Windmills came along,” he said, “and, yeah, that is the way to make a buck.”
The economy comes into play for housing development as well. Under Measure 37, passed by voters in 2004 (and later scaled back by Measure 49), landowners could seek to develop their land under the rules in place at the time of purchase, or be compensated by county government for their economic loss.
But in Harney County, compensation is all but out of the question.
In 2007, for example, landowner Dan Jordan of Burns won the right under Measure 37 to build 640 homes below Fish Lake, a popular recreation site on Steens Mountain’s west side, after the county concluded it could hardly afford to pay him $6.4 million. Grasty said those plans were later scaled way back, and so far, Jordan hasn’t built anything.
Still, those who love the Steens’ open vistas and assume that the mountain is protected as wilderness might be surprised to learn how much of it rests in private hands.
The BLM manages 428,000 acres, including the 170,000-acre Steens Mountain Wilderness Area, and the state administers 1,000 acres. But an additional 67,000 acres on and around the mountain are privately owned, and most of that is at low elevation suitable for homes.
The county’s land-use plan allows ranch or farm dwellings on tracts of at least 160 acres, said Grasty, the county chairman. Owners are expected to maintain some farming or ranching operations, but a local real estate broker, Randy Wilson, said keeping horses or a cow or two is enough.
Wilson, a broker with United Country-Clemens Real Estate in Hines and no relation to Hoyt Wilson, said he’s seeing interest among urbanites eager to escape to Harney County.
“Every week, I get people looking for property,” he said. “A lot of hunters, a lot of people looking to retire.” If they can get access to electricity and county approval to build on or near the mountain, he said, “people are going to jump all over it.”
John Witzel, an outfitter and former rancher who lives in Frenchglen just west of Steens Mountain, said he’s seen a marked shift in attitudes toward development.
Witzel, 51, and his wife, Cindy, were denied permission in 1997 to build 15 guest cabins and a 25-room lodge on the mountain’s west side. After they won Harney County approval to build a “career school” instead, the state Land Use Board of Appeals in 2001 overturned the decision.
“We couldn’t do that because of the viewshed,” Witzel said. “Things have changed, obviously.”
For hard-pressed ranchers, wind turbines are “a way to carry on and keep going,” he said. “I don’t think any of them want to look at windmills, but that’s the way it is.”
Richard Cockle – The Oregonian – http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2010/02/oregons_steens_mountain_could.html