Birder tilts at windmills

Speaking on behalf of birds at Roundhouse windfarm industrial siting hearing was intense experience

The 120 turbines of the Roundhouse wind farm will spread between I-80 and the Colorado border (indicated here as the Larimer and Weld county lines) and from Highway 218 to I-25 (red line on the east side).
The wind farm includes the Belvoir Ranch owned by the City of Cheyenne (yellow), Wyoming State Land (dark blue–each square is 1 square mile) and private land (light blue). The Big Hole, located on the Belvoir south of the railroad tracks, is under The Nature Conservancy conservation easement and will have no turbines.

Published July 5, 2019 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle as a guest editorial, “Participating at the Roundhouse hearing was an intense adventure”

By Barb Gorges

            The Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society agrees clean energy is needed. However, wind energy is deadly for birds when they are struck by turbine blades.

            Beginning last December, CHPAS discussed its concerns about the Roundhouse Wind Energy development with company, city and county officials. The 120-turbine wind farm will extend from Interstate 80 south to the Colorado state line and from I-25 west to Harriman Road.

            The Wyoming Industrial Siting Council hearing for the approval of the Roundhouse Wind Energy application was held June 13 in a quasi-legal format.
          Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society filed as a party, preparing a pre-hearing statement. The other parties were the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s Industrial Siting Division, Roundhouse, and Laramie County, also acting on behalf of the city of Cheyenne.
            We all presented our opening statements. Then the Roundhouse lawyer presented her expert witnesses, asking them leading questions. Then I, acting in the same capacity for CHPAS as the lawyer for Roundhouse, cross-examined her witnesses. One was a viewshed analysis expert from Los Angeles, the other a biologist from Western EcoSystems Technology, the Cheyenne consulting firm that does contract biological studies for wind energy companies across the country.
            Then CHPAS presented our expert witness, Daly Edmunds, Audubon Rockies’ policy and outreach director. Wind farm issues are a big part of her work. She is also a wildlife biologist with a master’s degree from the University of Wyoming.
            We were rushed getting our testimony in before the 5 p.m. cutoff for the first day because I was not available the next day. I asked permission to allow Mark Gorges to read our closing statement the next day, after the applicant had a chance to rebut all the conditions we asked for.
            The seven council members chose not to debate our conditions. Some conditions were echoed by DEQ. But it was a hard sell since Wyoming Game and Fish Department had already signed off on the application.
            Here are the conditions we asked for:
1) Some of the recommended wildlife studies will be one and a half years away from completion when turbine-building starts in September. Complete the studies first to make better turbine placement decisions.
2) Do viewshed analysis from the south and share it with adjacent Colorado open space and natural area agencies.
3) Get a “take permit” to avoid expensive trouble with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service if dead eagles are found.
4) Use the Aircraft Detection Lighting System so tower lights, which can confuse night-migrating birds, will be turned on as little as possible. This was on DEQ’s list as well.
5) Use weather radar to predict the best times to shut down turbines during bird migration.
6) Be transparent about the plans for and results of avian monitoring after the turbines start.
7) Relocate six of the southernmost turbine locations because of their impact on wildlife and the integrity of adjacent areas set aside for their conservation value.
            The second half of the hearing dealt with county/city requests for economic impact funds from the state. The expected costs are from a couple hundred workers temporarily descending on Cheyenne requiring health and emergency services.
            At the June CHPAS board meeting, members approved staying involved in the Roundhouse issue. The Roundhouse folks have a little mitigation money we could direct toward a study to benefit birds at this and other wind farms. There is a Technical Advisory Committee we need to keep track of. And we need to lobby to give Game and Fish’s recommendations more legal standing so they can’t be ignored.
            It’s too bad I don’t watch courtroom dramas. The hearing would have been easier to navigate. But everyone—DEQ employees, the Roundhouse team, council members, hearing examiner, court reporter—was very supportive of CHPAS’s participation. They rarely see the public as a party at these hearings. I just wish we could have had one or more conditions accepted on behalf of the birds.

Barb Gorges is the most recent past president of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society which represents Audubon members in Laramie, Goshen and Platte counties.      

Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society took a tour of the Belvoir Ranch fall 2008. This photo looks northwest from the rim of the Big Hole. Photo by Barb Gorges.
On the southernmost edge of the Belvoir Ranch sits the rim of the Big Hole. This is the view to the south, into Colorado’s Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space. Concentrated nocturnal songbird migration through this area can be seen with weather radar (see a previous post about BirdCast). It is not known if the 499-foot-tall Roundhouse wind turbines will be visible from below. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Wyoming: Land of open spaces?

Housing development

This 2010 view of “ranchettes” scattered across the prairie shows the area just beyond Cheyenne’s northern city limits, from near the Cheyenne water tower. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Oct. 5, 2000, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Land of open spaces? Even Wyoming faces the loss of open space to development, especially in fertile river valleys.”

2014 Update: See http://www.uwyo.edu/toolkit/ltcpinwy/ for the University of Wyoming’s website, “Land Trusts and Conservation Partners in Wyoming.” Now the current issue is the conflict between the owners of sub-surface mineral rights who want to mine or drill for them, and the owners of the land surface above them.

By Barb Gorges

LARAMIE – Open space is on the agenda in communities across the country as urban and suburban sprawl continue to consume agricultural land.

In Wyoming, however, we still have “Wide Open Spaces” which was the title of a day-long forum held at the University of Wyoming last week.

The conference was sponsored by the Stroock Forum on Wyoming Lands and People and by the university’s Institute for Environment and Natural Resources.

The forum presenters and audience members included developers, conservationists, ranchers, farmers and professionals—all interested in land-use planning issues.

What is open space?

Presenter Jay Fetcher, founder of the Colorado Cattleman’s Agricultural Land Trust, said he once heard a woman from New York City say it was an apartment with two bedrooms instead of one.

To folks in Wyoming, Governor Jim Geringer said in his opening remarks, “it might be standing on a hill and not seeing any sign of man.”

In the forum, discussion was limited to “conserving working landscapes and wildlife habitat in Wyoming and the West,” specifically farmland and ranchland.

Agricultural producers in the Rocky Mountain region have not been able to keep up with the economy. They subdivide a bit of their ranch or farm to raise money for their operation, said Ben Alexander of the Sonoran Institute.

And the buyers are affluent people searching for better living conditions in a natural environment with recreational amenities.

Nationwide, said Alexander, 16 million acres were converted from agricultural to residential use between 1992 and 1997.

“We are educated to value open space,” said Frieda Knobloch, assistant professor of American Studies at UW. Ever since our country’s birth, she said, citizens aspired to live in open spaces and flocked to the frontier.

Converting ag land to rural residential use, said Alexander, is a drain on county finances. Studies show the cost of providing services such as water, sewage, roads and fire protection exceeds revenue generated by development.

In addition, the land that gets converted tends to be along the valleys–Wyoming’s most productive agricultural land.

While the rural human community undergoes a cultural shift away from farming and ranching with the influx of new homeowners, the wildlife community also changes.

Stan Anderson, UW professor of zoology, said fragmentation of landscapes into smaller, fenced parcels can interfere with big-game migration routes.

Changes in land use adversely affect the habitat requirements and the habitat requirements of native wildlife such as sage grouse and songbirds, resulting in the invasion of less desirable species.

Rancher Jim Cole, owner of the Deerwood Ranch outside Centennial, became a developer by default when he decided to sell a few 40 acre lots to subsidize his ranching operation.

But he wrote the subdivision covenants so that he could continue to graze all but the actual 2-acre homesites. In return, homeowners may wander the rest of the ranch.

Jack Turnell, vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said the association is looking at establishing a land trust similar to the Colorado Cattleman’s trust.

A rancher could sell his development rights to the nonprofit trust for cash, or he could donate the value of the rights for a tax write-off.

In return, the present owner holds himself and all future owners to particular development and management restrictions he and the trust agree upon.

Conservation easements are a similar tool. Local governments can also administer trusts and easements.

Ranchers and farmers would benefit from changes in government policies, said another forum presenter,Saratoga rancher Jim Berger.

He urged repeal of the estate or “death” tax, which frequently forces family members to liquidate all or part of a a farm or ranch operation in order to pay the tax. That land is often converted to other uses.

“Ranching is the most irrational act,” said Bob Budd, manager of the Nature Conservancy’s Red Canyon Ranch near Lander. “People who do it, do it because they love the land.”

But, he added, “Where is the market for flycatchers? Where is the market for sage grouse? Where is the market for wild things?”

Budd is a proponent of holistic resource management, an integrated way of making decisions. He proposes that ranchers look at innovative opportunities like grass banking, not only to keep their operations viable but to keep improving them.

Some of the solutions to open space concerns can come from the state Legislature, such as tightening lax subdivision laws, said Jean Hocker, founder of the Jackson Hole Land Trust. But saving open spaces “is going to be done with incentives,” that are attractive financially and emotionally, she said.

Wyomingite John Turner, president and CEO of the Conservation Fund and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Bush administration, said that although funding land trusts can be difficult, voters around the country have passed hundreds of initiatives supporting open space.

As UW’s Institute of Environment and Natural Resources turns its attention to open space issues, Turner said he is certain it will find collaborative, Wyoming-style ways to uphold the Cowboy State’s identity as the nation’s “open space.”

Alan Simpson, a former U.S. senator from Wyoming and a veteran of land-use planning battles, was the forum’s luncheon speaker.

He said any effort to shape Wyoming’s future will succeed only with “good faith, good science, good sense and good will.”