Advocates for building Western Washington’s first large wind farm on a ridge near Naselle tick off the benefits: Green energy! Green jobs! The whole green economy thing! This is what the environmentalists want, right? Shun the country’s coal and natural gas reserves, and embrace the wind.
The demand for renewable energy led to this plan: Put up turbines on windy, logged-over Radar Ridge, so-named because during the Cold War the Air Force watched for Russian bombers from there.
Electric utilities say they wouldn’t even bother with it if environmentalists hadn’t pushed through Initiative 937 and mandated investments in green power.
So wind-farm backers sound more than a little frustrated when talking about the environmental concern that could sink their green-energy strategy: The daily routine of the marbled murrelet.
“That wind farm is a great idea,” said Longview state Rep. Dean Takko. “It’s got all the good things going for it, except for that little bird.”
That little bird is a threatened species and has been since 1992.
The protection of the Endangered Species Act hasn’t helped, though. The number of marbled murrelets on the West Coast has declined from 24,400 to 18,000 since 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates.
Marbled murrelets fly between their nests in old-growth forests and the ocean, where they dive deep to catch small fish. Nesting pairs have just one chick a year, and it takes both parents to shuttle food to their young. As forests with tall trees, big limbs and a thick canopy shrink, marbled murrelets’ eggs become vulnerable to raids by crows, ravens and jays. There are hazards in the ocean, too, like nets and oil slicks, or falcons and seals.
Now add to the list of potential dangers on the marbled murrelets’ twice-daily commute — rotating wind turbines.
The towers on Radar Ridge would be in the marbled murrelets’ flight path. The ridge sits between the ocean and the only marbled murrelet nesting area left in Southwest Washington. “If you wanted to have an issue with marbled murrelets, you couldn’t have picked a better place,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Doug Zimmer said.
Energy Northwest, the public power developer whose plans to build a coal plant in Kalama were wrecked by new limits on greenhouse gases, proposes to install as many as 32 wind turbines on land leased from the state Department of Natural Resources.
Public utilities in Pacific, Grays Harbor, Clallam and Mason counties bought into the project and are sharing with Energy Northwest the development costs, which total nearly $1.7 million so far with no assurance the wind farm will be built.
Energy Northwest was aware marbled murrelets lived around the ridge when it selected the site, spokeswoman Rochelle Olson said. So far, studies by a consultant hired by Energy Northwest show “extremely low murrelet activity in the immediate vicinity of the proposed turbine sites,” according to Olson.
Biologists have identified 89 marbled murrelet nests in Southwest Washington. Opponents of the Radar Ridge wind farm say the project would endanger those survivors, who would have to repeatedly run a gauntlet of rotors.
“It poses an unacceptable risk,” said wildlife biologist Paula Swedeen, a private consultant who served on a panel that advised the DNR on managing its lands to protect the marbled murrelet. “Because the population is not in very good shape right now, even a low-level of mortality can have a deleterious impact on the population.”
The Pacific Seabird Group, a conservation group, has come out against the wind farm. It too views marbled murrelets as too few for any to get whacked.
“Almost any mortality for a listed species is hard for the species to take,” the group’s vice chairman, Craig Harrison, said. “It would be a different situation if the bird had turned the corner and the (population) projection was going upward.”
While downplaying the project’s affect on marbled murrelets, utilities are touting its benefits.
Besides complying with I-937, a wind farm west of the mountains would be closer to customers, reducing the cost and environmental impact of transmitting power, according to the utilities.
Also, building the wind farm would create jobs and be a boon to Pacific County, said state Sen. Brian Hatfield, an enthusiastic backer of the project.
“The investment would be incredible,” he said. “In your legislative career, there are probably a handful of things you want to look back on and say, ‘I had a hand in that, and I’m proud.’ This is definitely one.”
Public schools stand to benefit. DNR estimates it could collect $10,000 a year per turbine in royalties. The school construction fund would be the primary beneficiary, along with a trust fund for the University of Washington.
Right now, DNR collects $500 a year from Energy Northwest, which is halfway through a five-year study period. In the end, DNR could block the project if the agency decides the wind farm would endanger marbled murrelets.
“We’re enthusiastic about alternative energy, but we’re watching this closely,” said Jed Herman, department leasing manager.
Also watching closely is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency doesn’t have the authority to forbid the wind farm, but it enforces the Endangered Species Act. The service could intervene and move to stop the turbines if spinning rotors puree marbled murrelets. And the agency believes there is a “high likelihood” of that happening, Zimmer said.
“We have made our concerns known, and we don’t want to get into a situation where we have take,” he said. “This is not like taking the occasional crow.
“What you don’t want to end up with is killing marbled murrelets and then you have to shut it down,” he said. “Then you end up with big towers sitting on a hill that can’t be used.”
Grays Harbor PUD Commissioner Tom Casey said he supports the Radar Ridge project, though he wrote recently in the PUD newsletter that Fish and Wildlife has given the utility “an off (the) record suggestion that we abandon the project.”
“I don’t know that we’ve gotten anything like that,” said PUD Manager Rick Lovely, who dismissed concerns that the marbled murrelet will scuttle the PUD’s investment, which amounts to $630,000 so far.
“I’m not sure that we agree there’s a marbled murrelet issue. I know there are people trying to imply that,” he said.
The area’s three Democratic legislators — Hatfield, Takko and Rep. Brian Blake — agree that worries about the marbled murrelet are overblown. They also complain that while some environmentalists demand wind power, others are trying to stop it. “Frankly, it’s disturbing,” Blake said. “Here we are trying to develop alternative energy, and they’re fighting us.”
This year, Hatfield won unanimous approval from the Legislature for a resolution that he said signaled bipartisan support for the Radar Ridge wind farm. The resolution didn’t mention Radar Ridge by name, though, and merely asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to allow the development of alternative energy resources while still protecting threatened and endangered species.
Nevertheless, Hatfield said he considered the resolution a victory in gaining recognition that the project shouldn’t be dismissed.
The irony of questioning a renewable energy project isn’t lost on environmentalists and conservation agencies. But they are skeptical power developers can guarantee the marbled murrelet won’t be harmed, and that brings into question how “green” the wind farm would be.
Said Zimmer: “Green energy is only green energy if it’s good for fish and wildlife, not the Fish and Wildlife Service, fish and wildlife.”