Vt. wind project is first for Forest Service

The Forest Service has approved the first utility-scale wind project on national forestland inside southwest Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest, in a move that signals the agency's readiness to assume a greater role in renewable energy development.

The Deerfield Wind Project, which has been under review for nearly seven years, was one of 14 infrastructure projects that the White House said in October would be expedited through the permitting and environmental review processes in an effort to create jobs.

Last week, Green Mountain Forest Supervisor Colleen Madrid issued a record of decision (ROD) greenlighting the project, which will place 15 wind turbines with a combined 30 megawatt capacity along forest ridgelines.

The project would not add a significant amount of electricity to the nation's growing renewables portfolio -- the American Wind Energy Association estimates that the industry added as much as 7,000 megawatts of installed wind-power capacity last year -- but Forest Service officials said it indicates the agency's renewed efforts to take on a greater role in wind development on public land.

"Renewable energy is a priority with the White House and with us," said Faye Krueger, associate deputy chief of the National Forest System in Washington, D.C. "Renewable energy is a good thing. Right now we're looking to see where it's feasible on National Forest System lands."

The new decision follows the issuance by the Forest Service in September of final policy directives designed to guide forest supervisors in siting and permitting wind energy projects on National Forest System lands.

"We didn't have any policy on that," Krueger said. "We felt we needed to have some direction for the field when some of these proposals come in."

The White House list that prioritized the Vermont project also included a proposed 100-megawatt project that would string together 52 turbines along a 7-mile stretch of Cleghorn Ridge in California's San Bernardino National Forest. That project is still in the early stages of review.

The Deerfield Wind Project will place turbines from Portland, Ore.-based Iberdrola Renewables on two parallel ridges along the west and east sides of Vermont Route 8 and through portions of Searsburg and Readsboro, Vt.


The ROD followed the issuance last month of a final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project.

Iberdrola Renewables plans to complete the installation and have the wind farm operational as early as next winter, but the timing will depend on whether opponents file administrative appeals to the ROD that could slow the project, said Paul Copelman, a company spokesman. Iberdrola already has an agreement with the Central Vermont Public Service to purchase roughly half of the plant's power output, he said.

"We're very pleased with the Forest Service decision to approve the project," Copelman said. "There is still work to be done, but certainly at this point the decision represents the culmination of a very extensive study, as well as work with the Forest Service, the state agencies and the public to address concerns that have been raised throughout this process."

A learning opportunity

So far, the Bureau of Land Management has taken the lead on wind installations on federal lands, issuing final approval to four large-scale wind projects since 2010 with a total production capacity of 544 megawatts -- enough to power 163,000 homes. That is expected to expand dramatically this year, as BLM has identified six wind power "priority projects" for 2012 that, if built, would have the capacity to produce 4,180 megawatts, or enough to power more than 1.2 million homes (see related story).

The Forest Service, conversely, has only a few meteorological testing sites on its 193 million acres, according to the Energy Department, despite what DOE describes as "numerous inquiries" from wind power developers requesting to use National Forest System land.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in a statement last week that not only will the Deerfield Wind Project "bring more jobs and renewable power to the people of Vermont," it has also provided the agency with "a great opportunity to learn valuable lessons for future wind energy facilities on other national forestlands around the country."

Forest Service officials may be looking for the Green Mountain project to pave the way for future similar projects, but private industry will continue to lead the charge, they say. Krueger said the wind industry will ultimately identify suitable project locations, not the Forest Service.

Frank Maisano, an energy specialist at the law firm of Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents wind developers, said approval of the Deerfield Wind Project does set an important precedent.

"I think that certainly having one done and having it approved and seeing that it's possible creates opportunities for additional projects," Maisano said. "Hopefully this project approval will give us a green light to explore some of the sites that are developable. I wouldn't expect to see a rush to Forest Service land because of one project."

Environmental concerns

Local environmentalists say they are concerned about the project's possible impacts on wildlife habitat in the Green Mountain National Forest, which stretches for more than 400,000 acres along the southwestern spine of Vermont, rolling past hills of upland brush and dense stands of sugar and red maples, American beech and yellow birch.

The 15 proposed wind turbines, stretching as tall as 389 feet, would sit atop ridges along the southern Green Mountains, just 2 miles west of the congressionally designated George D. Aiken Wilderness Area.

The peace and solitude of the wilderness area likely would be compromised "by putting up giant pinwheels with blinking lights within the viewshed," said Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment (VCE), a Danby, Vt.-based nonprofit citizens group that lobbies for responsible renewables development.

Smith said VCE plans to challenge the Forest Service ROD by the Feb. 24 deadline to file administrative appeals, citing not only the potential impacts to area viewsheds but also concerns about dwindling black bear habitat that could be fragmented by the project.

The installation would require clear-cutting American beech trees, an important source of food for black bears. The bears feed on the beechnuts, and the western edge of the proposed project site is "dominated by American beech" and "includes areas of concentrated mature beech trees that show evidence of foraging by black bears," according to the final EIS.

A total of 73 acres of forestland and 14 acres of private land would need to be cleared and graded for the project, including the temporary clearing of nearly 2 acres at each turbine site to assemble and install the turbines, according to the final EIS.

"The concern is primarily about habitat fragmentation and the fact that there really aren't a lot of places in Vermont or the northeast where bears have large chunks of undisturbed forestland. The Green Mountain National Forest represents one of those rare places," said Mollie Matteson, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity in Richmond, Vt. "Not only will you be removing trees, but you'll make the area around the footprint of the project much less usable for the bears."

Ethan Ready, a Green Mountain National Forest spokesman, defended the Forest Service's extensive review of the wind project, saying the agency has done its best to ensure the wind farm will not have a significant environmental impact.

"This was not an easy decision. It involved weighing the aesthetic quality of the national forest, concerns about wildlife and concerns about noise, with the legitimate use of national forestlands to provide renewable energy for the American public," Ready said. "It's a difficult balance, but we feel at this time the project is an acceptable use of National Forest System land."

Copelman, the Iberdrola Renewables spokesman, said the company took the potential environmental impacts "very seriously" and added that the company intends to build the wind farm in a manner that "minimizes those impacts the best we can with the best science we have."

Matteson said CBD has not yet decided whether it will appeal the Forest Service decision or join Vermonters for a Clean Environment in its planned appeal.

But she said she agrees with industry and government officials who say the Deerfield Wind Project is significant in terms of future renewables development on Forest Service land in Vermont and across the country.

"There's a lot riding on this," Matteson said. "It's the first wind-energy project on any national forest, so from the position of both opponents and supporters, it has a lot of weight."

Click here to read the ROD.

Click here to read the project EIS.

Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.

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