Wind farms are welcomed by some rural residents and under fire by environmentalists. (These turbines near Rufus were photographed with an infrared camera.)
Chris Crowley, however, is not going anywhere. He’s already braved one harrowing moment early in Columbia Energy Partners’ life, not two years after he left a grassroots music startup called Hardroad.com (“That’s what I should have named my wind company,” he says.) A few days before Christmas 2001, his first wind project near the town of Arlington, dependent on loans personally guaranteed by Crowley, suddenly lost its power purchaser, Pacific Power. He and his wife and two kids sat around the kitchen table and wept, before Crowley, who then as now operates with a small team and a large consulting Rolodex, went back out and sold the project to Horizon.
These days, Crowley dons his trusty company baseball cap and rallies ruralites in Harney County. They’re drawn to his juicy promise of hundreds of millions in investment, 150 construction jobs during each of the projects, and around 10 permanent posts at each farm. This area has been on a long, slow decline with shrinking timber harvests on surrounding public land and battered further by the closing two years ago of a Monaco Coach RV plant. Unemployment now stands at over 16% in the county, half the remaining workforce is in the public sector and the largest private employer is the Safeway in the county seat of Burns (population 3,000).
Crowley also has been going the extra mile for the local seal of approval. In addition to hiring a crew to build an early access road, he bought a Chevy Yukon at the dealership in Burns and supported the local Fourth of July fireworks display this summer. He’s held informational meetings for handfuls of people in tiny ranch communities like Diamond (“Population: 5” reads the token sign) and fielded questions about windmills tipping over cows. He dines and swaps pictures of his kids with Harney County Judge Steve Grasty.
He even has brought his family down for spring breaks. “We talked about moving down here,” he says. “I wish we had.”
When it came time for a hearing in June on whether the state should bar wind development in a special management area around Steens Mountain, almost 200 people turned up at the Harney County fairgrounds in support of the project, overwhelming the dozen or so objectors.
“Chris did it right. He got involved. He went to dinner with people,” says Grasty. “It’s what the obstructionist groups won’t do,” he says, referring to environmental groups. “They don’t have representation in the community. They don’t come to the fair or football games. This community will absorb people quickly. It will also put up barriers if you don’t want to participate.” Grasty, for his part, has become a windphile, with a faded, early-1900s picture at the ready near his desk showing 27 tin water-pump windmills in downtown Burns.
But excitement around town has given way to restlessness in the three years of planning, delays and petitions that followed swift county approval for the first project in mid-2007.
Crowley hasn’t been in Harney County for 10 minutes on his mid-summer trip when he’s greeted with an earnest, “When you going to put me to work?” from an equipment operator, while standing around the local shooting range.
“As soon as I can get the green light on this thing!” Crowley fires back, gamely.
Down in town, he introduces himself to a group of women at a local watering hole, and one promptly asks: “My son’s 20. Can you give him a job?”
Ranchers who’ve set aside reservations about 400 foot-tall turbines and doubts about global warming and Obama (“I don’t talk straight politics much,” says Crowley) are now wondering when their royalties are going to start. “If you can get this built, I can retire,” rancher Hoyt Wilson tells Crowley, as they stand at the base of the majestic 1,000-foot ridge Wilson owns on the Steens’ east side that will be “cluttered” — as Wilson says — with the first 45 windmills known as the Echanis project. Wilson, 68, figures the turbines offer a way to keep his 28,000-acre Mann Lake Ranch intact and float his marginal cow-calf operation so he can hand the ranch off to his kids. “Then again, I might die before you get this thing up!” he jests with Crowley.
Whatever anxiousness greets him in Harney, Crowley is sold on the ranchers’ salt-of-the-earth pride, the way they fight off rattlesnake bites and give birth at home and live to 90 in the face of financial and legislative distress. And as he drives Harney’s back roads, noting notorious caves, who’s moved their cattle and where a herd of imported buffalo used to roam, he channels a worn voice and asks, “When does Harney County get something?”
Environmentalists aren’t so sympathetic, noting that ranchers made out handsomely in the 2000 deal that saw them give up lands around the Steens peak to create a cow-free wilderness. Landowners received cash payments and added contiguous rangelands at lower elevations in exchange. They also agreed to forgo substantial development in a new management zone around the mountain, where Columbia Energy’s two unpermitted projects would go.
ONDA’s Brent Fenty points to a line in the 2000 Steens Mountain Wilderness Act prohibiting anything “different from the current character and uses of the land” in the special management zone. But Crowley notes that an appendix to the Steens Act also says that public land managers may promote clean energy in the area.
Retrenchment looked like such a distant possibility to Crowley this spring that he handed off negotiating with ONDA to his lawyer, Jon Norling.
But slowly over the summer, the playing field began to change. First, ONDA hinted at a willingness to bargain when it agreed to abstain from legal action on another energy project — the Ruby natural gas pipeline from southwestern Wyoming into Malin, just south of Klamath Falls — in exchange for a $22 million agreement from pipeline builder El Paso Corp. to fund habitat restoration and grazing permit retirement.
Then the federal Bureau of Land Management, which is studying Columbia Energy’s transmission line across the Steens cooperative management area and the nearby Malheur bird refuge, said the wind turbines in all of the Columbia Energy projects would only be visible from 0.4% of the Steens wilderness area.
When Norling finally got a meeting with the ONDA in early August, he says the tone was lighter. “We were buoyed by the Ruby pipeline deal,” Norling says. According to Norling, ONDA staffers no longer raised any concerns about scenic blight from the turbines, and the two groups began sketching out an agreement that would set aside land and money to mitigate losses to wildlife habitat from the wind turbines, in exchange for no legal challenges from ONDA. ONDA leaders maintain that no deal has been reached. “Our position hasn’t changed,” says Liz Nysson, ONDA’s climate change coordinator.
Even if there is a glimmer of progress, Crowley is not smiling yet. A deal in the next few months could pave the way for the first project to come online as early as next year. But while his colleagues view the concession as part of the cost of doing business, Crowley seems to see it as deeply dissatisfying. A new compensation fund, similar to the one ONDA set up as part of the Ruby pipeline, would mean that Crowley’s wind projects weren’t much better than a natural gas pipeline. The approval of green groups needs to be bought in the same way. And that’s a harsh reality.
“We’re green power, not fossil fuels!” Crowley says. “I hope that still has some bearing on things. We’re a good thing.”