Spotted owl advocates pipe up over Whistling Ridge wind farm proposal

They ask federal agency to reconsider its finding

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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Five conservation groups have asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to formally reconsider its finding that a proposed wind project in Skamania County would not harm the northern spotted owl. In a letter to the agency sent Wednesday, the groups cite a biologist’s report that nine owl sightings near the proposed wind turbine sites were documented in surveys last year.

Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council is scheduled to announce its recommendation on the controversial wind project at a special meeting in Stevenson on Thursday. The meeting is scheduled for 2 to 6 p.m. at the Hegewald Center. No testimony will be taken.

Gov. Chris Gregoire will have the final say on whether the wind project goes forward. She has 60 days to announce her decision.

The Whistling Ridge project, first proposed by SDS Lumber Co. of Bingen in 2008, would erect as many as 50 turbines on 1,152 acres of industrial forestland owned by the company in Skamania County, just outside the north boundary of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, about seven miles northwest of White Salmon. The southernmost turbines would be located just north of the scenic area boundary.

The project would have a maximum capacity of 75 megawatts of electricity.

SDS President Jason Spadaro initially hoped to expand the wind farm to the north by leasing 2,560 acres of adjacent state forest trust land. But in August 2009, the Department of Natural Resources announced it was no longer considering leasing the land because it was required to manage the stands of mixed old growth and second-growth forest as a “spotted owl emphasis area,” with restrictions on logging.

In July 2010, Ken Berg, director of the service’s Western Washington office, concurred with the Bonneville Power Administration’s conclusion that the project “is not likely to affect” the owl. In order for the project to go forward, SDS Lumber must also win agreement from the BPA that it will connect energy produced by the wind turbines to its electrical grid.

Because the BPA is a federal agency, it is required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service before taking any action that might harm a threatened or endangered species.

Wednesday’s letter was signed by Seattle Audubon, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Conservation Northwest, the American Bird Conservancy and the Gifford Pinchot Task Force. It said the Fish and Wildlife Service made “multiple factual errors” in its earlier finding.

Among them: The agency implied that the owl documented in 2010 in the vicinity of the project was detected only three times. In fact, conservationists say, the owl, likely the same male adult, was documented at nine distinct locations, indicating that it was actively moving around the site of the proposed wind farm and might attempt to fly through it.

The agency also misstated how close the owl flew to the proposed site of the northernmost turbines and erroneously concluded that the area does not contain suitable spotted owl habitat, conservationists said. In fact, they said, the site contains a patchwork of stands, including some more than 80 years old, that can support foraging owls. They noted that the DNR itself stated in formal comments that “this project may interfere with a spotted owl’s ability to disperse” from two designated owl circles on state land.

A revised recovery plan for the owl, issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service in June, recommends that in the face of its continued decline, state and private lands must play a larger role in its recovery.

Fish and Wildlife officials said Thursday afternoon they had not yet seen the letter and could not respond.

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523; Twitter: col_politics; kathie.durbin@columbian.com.