Development of $1 billion worth of wind power on the north side of southeastern Oregon's popular Steens Mountain hinges on approval of a high-voltage transmission line that would cross federal lands.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is considering two routes and whether to approve a 115-kilovolt line or allow a future upgrade doubling capacity to 230 kilovolts to allow sale to Southern California Edison.
The lower-capacity line would be enough to carry power from 40 to 69 wind turbines on the Echanis project, located on private ranchland, to the Harney Electric Cooperative's transmission lines, said Skip Renchler, BLM project leader on environmental impact statement. The higher capacity on the same power poles would be needed to go forward with the East Ridge, West Ridge and Riddle Mountain projects, which have yet to win Harney County approval.
The outcome will depend on how the public responds to the draft environmental impact statement currently under review, Renchler said. The final study is due Nov. 1. If approved, work on the high-voltage line could begin in spring.
Steens Mountain, about 50 miles southeast of Burns, rises dramatically out of the high desert and is popular with campers, anglers, hunters, hikers and birdwatchers. Conservation groups had hoped to protect the mountain from grazing and mining by designation as a national monument but settled in 2000 for a compromise with local ranchers that created the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protective Area covering 425,000 acres.
Conservation groups want to stop all wind power development on the mountain, arguing there are plenty of other places in the region with strong winds that are not as beloved by Oregonians for their dramatic landscapes.
"I think this is the challenge we all face as wind development begins to be proposed in wild areas as opposed to wheat fields, where there are a lot less environmental impacts around," said Brent Senty of the Oregon Natural Desert Association.
The draft study found that the sight of the Echanis wind farm, with turbines mounted on 400-foot poles, and the transmission line is the biggest impact on lands popular for outdoor recreation. They could be seen from hiking trails, a campground, scenic backcountry roads and the road from Fields to Denio. But the transmission line is not expected to make visitors stay away because the views are distant and intermittent.
The transmission line would be visible from 822 acres of the Steens Mountain Wilderness, 0.5 percent of the area, reducing opportunities for solitude, the study said.
Columbia Energy Partners of Vancouver, Wash., is developing all four projects, worth a total of $1 billion.
President Chris Crowley said all four are on private land. The only thing different about the larger capacity line would be stringing more wires on the same 80-foot rusted steel poles erected for the lower capacity line.
He added that the Steens Mountain wind farms would be valuable because they would take advantage of winds that blow strongly when winds in the Columbia Gorge, where most of Oregon's wind farms are located, are not so strong.
The West Route is preferred. It would stretch 29 miles along a 150-foot right-of way coming off a ranch owned by Hoyt Wilson on the northeastern side of the mountain. It would connect with the grid near Diamond, crossing less than two miles of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge parallel with an existing power line. It also crosses nine miles of BLM land.
The North Route would run 46 miles, including 12 miles of BLM land, to connect with the grid near Crane. It does not cross the wildlife refuge.