Part of this region's economic future might rely on something once thought impossible: Roping the wind. OK, OK, the task isn't literally to rope the wind, but efforts to harness its energy continue to represent an area of growth for Southwest Washington.
Because of that fact, the Washington State Supreme Court's recent decision to uphold approval of a controversial wind farm in Skamania County was a wise one. By assessing — and then rejecting — a challenge from two environmental advocacy groups, the court cleared one roadblock that had been impeding the Whistling Ridge Energy Project. Economic potential should not be the sole factor when weighing projects that could impact the environment, but after considering all the issues in this case, the court chose the logical path.
The plan for the $70 million Whistling Ridge project would place 35 wind turbines on private forest land in Skamania County — just outside the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Originally proposed in 2008 by SDS Lumber Co. and Broughton Lumber Co., the idea was given a green light in 2011 by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, and was approved by then-Gov. Chris Gregoire in 2012. Along the way, it had been scaled back from an initial 50 wind turbines in order to protect views in the scenic area.
Those approvals of the project were challenged by Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Save Our Scenic Area, who argued that potential environmental harm had not been duly noted in the original application. But the state Supreme Court ruled: "Any minor deficiencies in the application itself are to be expected and do not warrant reversal. Invalidation of the completed review and recommendation would also defeat the purpose of the extended hearings and ongoing oversight of the project."
The project likely is still years away from implementation. But whenever it comes to fruition, the bottom line will remain the same: The project is outside of the designated Gorge area, and it is on private land. Case closed.
While the notion of 400-foot-high towers dotting the landscape might be anathema to some, that notion cannot mitigate several basic facts:
• We require energy. Rare is the person who wishes to return to a society devoid of refrigerators and electric lights, and barring that we are going to need electricity to make our lives manageable.
• All forms of energy have some measure of environmental impact. Hydroelectric dams make life difficult for fish; nuclear energy leaves behind a devastating byproduct; coal leaves a big footprint both in the extraction and the burning phases of the process.
• Wind energy, by comparison, has a minor impact on the environment. Yes, the turbines can cause havoc for birds and other wildlife, and the mantislike towers placed in an otherwise pristine natural setting can be unsightly, but wind energy is a productive and clean alternative.
As anybody who has driven down the freeway alongside a 100-foot-long turbine blade can attest, wind energy is making a mark in Southwest Washington. The Port of Vancouver is a major transfer point for turbine parts, and programs to train turbine technicians have popped up in the area. Southwest Washington is fortunate to have a rich natural resource outside its front door, a resource that will be in demand throughout the country for years to come.
Because, in order to rope the wind, first you have to go to where the wind is.