Gorge wind farm project headed for high court

Whistling Ridge's effect on wildlife worries Friends group

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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More than a year after its approval, a proposed wind farm in the Columbia River Gorge remains in legal limbo. Now the controversial plan is headed for a date with the Washington Supreme Court.

The Whistling Ridge Energy Project received a green light last year from then-Gov. Chris Gregoire, following the recommendation of the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. But the decision also scaled back the original proposal, reducing the number of wind turbines from 50 to 35 in order to protect views in the federally protected Gorge scenic area.

The outcome didn't leave the project developers or its opponents entirely happy. Construction never started. Opponents, led by Portland-based advocacy group Friends of the Columbia Gorge, mounted a legal challenge that's now landed before the state's highest court.

The group presented a wide range of arguments in its initial brief to the court, arguing that project developer Whistling Ridge Energy LLC and those who approved the plan didn't properly evaluate environmental impacts to the area. Much of the concern centers around wildlife, which would be displaced or harmed by dozens of wind turbines spinning in a valuable natural setting, said Nathan Baker, Friends' staff attorney.

And given the relatively small capacity of the project — about 75 megawatts at most — "there really is very little benefit," Baker said.

SDS Lumber Co. and Broughton Lumber Co. first proposed the $150 million wind farm in 2008. The project would put 35 wind turbines on private forest land in Skamania County, just outside the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area boundary and near the town of Underwood. The project would be on 1,152 acres, but most of that land would continue to be used for commercial forestry, as it has for decades, according to Whistling Ridge.

The project went through all required studies and scrutiny over years of review before its approval, developers argued in court filings. Many of the opponents' arguments are extraneous or hold the project to an unreasonable standard, they said.

At the time of Gregoire's approval last year, Whistling Ridge President Jason Spadaro expressed doubt as to whether the wind farm would pencil out financially in a scaled-back form. But Spadaro said last week that many factors determine success, and he believes Whistling Ridge is still worth pursuing.

"That did not mean that the project was permanently inviable," Spadaro said. "Markets are always changing, and the demand for renewable energy is still with us."

Friends of the Columbia Gorge has also opposed the idea of sending coal exports through the Northwest. Now, Spadaro said, the group is fighting a clean energy alternative.

"For an environmental group, I find great irony in that," he said.

Skamania County has also weighed in on the case, calling Whistling Ridge an "economic stimulus" in a brief filed jointly with the Klickitat County Public Economic Development Authority. The project could almost double property tax revenue in a county decimated by economic hardship, according to the statement.

Friends of the Columbia Gorge filed its initial brief with the court in February. The respondents in the case made their written arguments this month.

The Supreme Court is likely to hear oral arguments in June, Baker said. A ruling could come a few months after that, he said.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com