The long-running case over the impacts of a proposed wind farm on Steens Mountain in southeastern Oregon has been put to an end by a federal district court, the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) and Audubon Society of Portland have announced.
This week, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon vacated the U.S. Department of the Interior’s (DOI) approval of Columbia Energy Partners’ proposed project, which would have comprised 70 turbines and a transmission line on Steens Mountain – which the groups say is home to a unique habitat corridor that is essential to the survival of neighboring populations of Greater sage-grouse.
In 2011, the DOI approved a plan to construct the approximately 100 MW project. Columbia Energy Partners said power from the wind farm would be sent to Southern California as part of an agreement with Southern California Edison.
However, according to the ONDA and the Audobon Society, sage-grouse populations have declined significantly over the past several decades across the West, and the project could have “forever marred one of Oregon’s most cherished high desert natural areas.”
Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) failed to consider the project’s effects on the Greater sage-grouse’s winter habitat areas.
At the direction of the appeals court, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon has now found that the BLM’s failure to collect adequate baseline data about the Greater sage-grouse was “serious” because, as the Ninth Circuit had found, it had “materially impeded” the public’s ability to review and comment on the project and the DOI’s ability to make an informed decision, the groups say.
“Wind energy is an important part of future energy generation, but Steens Mountain is simply not the right place for industrial-scale wind development,” comments Brent Fenty, executive director of ONDA. “Steens Mountain is the crown jewel of Oregon’s high desert. It is home to sage-grouse and other sensitive wildlife species, and Oregonians treasure the area for its wide-open vistas and wild country. I am grateful to bring this nearly decade-long effort to a close and ensure that Steens is kept intact for current and future generations.”
In 2009, ONDA prepared a report outlining areas in Oregon’s high desert with low, moderate and high levels of conflict with large-scale wind development. The report identified Steens Mountain as a high-conflict area due to both environmental and social conflicts.
ONDA and the Audubon Society of Portland submitted three separate petitions to the DOI in 2013, 2014 and 2015 to ask for the withdrawal of the Steens wind approval. They also filed a lawsuit in 2012.
“Steens Mountain never should have been considered for industrial wind development, and this outcome speaks to the importance of carefully considering the impacts of energy development on wildlife and other natural resources values,” states Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland. “We strongly support the transition to renewable energy sources, but it needs to be done in a responsible manner.”
The two groups were represented on this case by ONDA senior attorney Mac Lacy, assisted by Portland-based public interest attorney Dave Becker and Boise, Idaho-based attorney Laird Lucas.