By JESSE BURKHARDT
Following months of consideration, SDS Lumber Co. has formally submitted an application to build a wind energy project in eastern Skamania County.
The filing for the Whistling Ridge Energy Project, submitted on March 10, went to the Washington Energy Facility Siting and Evaluation Council (EFSEC) in Olympia.
Whistling Ridge is the name of a windy ridge line running behind Underwood Mountain, roughly seven miles northwest of White Salmon. The project site is entirely within Skamania County on property that SDS manages for timber production.
The project was previously referred to as the "Saddleback Mountain Project."
SDS President Jason Spadaro said the EFSEC was chosen over Skamania County regulatory agencies because the state agency has more expertise and familiarity with energy issues as opposed to county governments.
"Counties don't always have the staff to evaluate a big project like this," Spadaro said. "We've decided to apply to the state because of its expertise, and because this would put a big burden on Skamania County."
Spadaro said another of the positive aspects of dealing with the state is that there is a statutory timeline of a maximum of 12 months for a decision on the project.
"We're still hoping for 2011 for our interconnection with the BPA (Bonneville Power Administration)," Spadaro pointed out.
In remarks to EFSEC during the application process in Olympia, Spadaro pointed to the wind power project's many benefits.
"We are eager to showcase how to integrate wind power generation with sustainable forestry management while enhancing the economy of our host community, Skamania County," Spadaro said.
The project would also help SDS diversify.
"We're basically a renewable resources company," he said. "We've always worked in renewable wood products, and now want to move to wind energy and bio-mass. We would still be able to grow trees around our wind turbines. We see this project as a really important diversification for SDS."
Spadaro said an Environmental Impact Study would be required as part of the process to site the wind turbines.
According to Spadaro, the EIS scoping hearings will be held in Skamania County.
"The state will be the lead agency, but will work with the county," Spadaro explained.
The SDS application did not specify a set number of wind turbines, but the project is designed to provide 75 megawatts of energy.
The original proposal for this project anticipated that 42 wind turbines would be sited.
"We're looking forward to a transparent and fact-based process run by the state Energy Council," Spadaro said.
All of the land involved in project is within Skamania County. However, Spadaro pointed out that the property is also within the boundaries of the White Salmon Valley School District.
"This would be a significant new revenue source for the White Salmon schools," Spadaro said. "And all the taxing districts of Skamania County."
Not everyone shared Spadaro's positive view of the project, and concerns were being raised about potential impacts.
Sally Newell, an Underwood resident and member of the Underwood Community Council, questioned the move to take the application to Olympia rather than to county officials in Stevenson.
"It's a little unnerving when a project this size appears able to completely circumvent local planning processes," Newell said.
"We're not trying to bypass the county," Spadaro said. "The Energy Facility Siting Council has experts and is a more appropriate place to apply for the project. The local public will be heard. All meetings will be in the local community, in Skamania County."
Newell also wondered about the impact of moving dozens of wind turbines up to the ridge line.
"My biggest concern for folks in Underwood is the impact of transporting those behemoths up to the proposed project site," Newell explained. "We've all seen them on I-84. It seems to me that loads that size can't help but have a major impact on the normal comings and goings of the folks who live and work here, to say nothing of emergency services. We only have one road, and it's pretty narrow and curvy. Delays for these oversized loads appear inevitable, and there will be lots of loads."
Friends of the Columbia Gorge, meanwhile, said it sees several problems with the Whistling Ridge project.
"We are carefully reviewing the project and we will be commenting to EFSEC," said Michael Lang, conservation director for the organization.
Lang cited scenic impacts, possible harm to birds and other wildlife, and effects on neighboring property owners.
"It's right on the boundary of the National Scenic Area, and it's on a ridge," Lang said. "These wind turbines are approximately 400 feet high. They would have a significant visual impact."
According to Lang, the Friends organization is generally supportive of wind power -- but not in sensitive areas.
"We support wind energy projects," Lang explained. "But if it's placed in a sensitive area, that's not in the public interest. The question is, should a large industrial development be approved there? That's what this is."
Lang added that the area where the Whistling Ridge project is proposed has been designated by the state as a "spotted owl special emphasis area."
Spadaro said SDS has conducted extensive wildlife studies, and believes impacts will not be serious.
"We've been gathering data, and the delay may have been a real benefit," Spadaro said. "We have more wildlife surveys than any other wind power project in the state. It's a very comprehensive, thorough filing."
The SDS project also has many backers, and has won the support of Yakama Nation leaders. The chiefs of two local tribes -- Chief Johnny Jackson of the Cascades Tribes and Chief Wilbur Slockish of the Klickitat Tribe -- have strongly endorsed building more wind power projects in the area.
In a joint statement, the chiefs pointed out that alternatives such as dams and nuclear power were unacceptable.
"Wind is the only completely clean source of energy," the chiefs wrote. "We fully support bringing more wind energy to Skamania County."
The application for the Whistling Ridge Project is available on the EFSEC Web site at: EFSEC.wa.gov.