BLACKFOOT, Idaho – A lifetime of running cattle above Wolverine Canyon’s limestone spires has taught Peggy Stolworthy one absolute about eastern Idaho: The wind here blows like crazy.
Looking to harness that power, Stolworthy and a Seattle-based wind energy company aim to erect dozens of energy-producing turbines on 9,000 acres that have been in her family since the 1930s.
She says the project will help keep livestock on land she could otherwise be forced to subdivide into ranchettes. But Stolworthy has encountered a stiff headwind from a wealthy health care-products mogul who owns land nearby and argues the 5,600-foot mountains here are too precious to be outfitted with industrial turbines that could poke 40 stories into the sky.
Frank VanderSloot, who owns Melaleuca, Inc., paid for advertisements in the local newspaper and erected a sign at the base of the canyon urging drivers to take pictures because “Wolverine Canyon will never be the same.”
“You put up those windmills and for me, the nature part is gone,” VanderSloot said in an interview at his $800 million Idaho Falls-based company.
Average power royalty payments for private property owners usually range between $2,000 and $4,000 per megawatt, and Ridgeline Energy LLC wants to add 450 megawatts.
“With livestock prices getting where they are and hay and grain prices soaring, it really causes the livestock owner to wonder if he can stay in business, without doing something on the outside,” said Stolworthy, whose house is near where Wolverine Road turns from asphalt to gravel and heads into the canyon.
This high-country Idaho drama that has both sides vying for the affections of environmental groups is being played out elsewhere in America, too, as wind farm protests have arisen from small but vocal groups from Cape Cod to Washington.
While billionaire oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, U.S. Congress and the Western Governors Association are all pushing wind energy as one solution to America’s energy security woes, foes say growing demand for greenhouse-gas-free megawatts shouldn’t trump other interests, including land values and scenic vistas.
Conservationists in Maryland stalled turbines in the windy western part of that state by arguing roads leading to them would denude ridge-top Appalachian forests while providing only a pittance of the energy America needs.
In central Washington state’s Kittitas County, local officials are fighting Gov. Chris Gregoire over a wind farm they say crowds homes. Residents of rural North Carolina contend three wind turbines proposed for private ground there would cause a racket and disrupt the coastal aesthetic.
And in the highest-profile fight, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney tried to kill a 130-turbine proposal off Nantucket Island that would be visible from the Kennedy family’s compound.
Eric Rosenbloom, a Vermont-based science editor who runs the Internet site National Wind Watch, argues shortcomings of industrial wind farms are being ignored as the large financiers behind these projects race to cash in on millions worth of federal tax credits and other incentives.
“The preponderance of support for wind energy is probably due to the fact that most people will never have to weigh the impacts,” he said. “They require heavy roads, they create noise, lights, new transmission lines.”
Industry advocates dispute Rosenbloom’s claims that wind doesn’t have the potential to displace dirtier energy sources like coal.
And they say foes are unlikely to dent broader enthusiasm – especially given a report from the U.S. Department of Energy that says it’s feasible to provide 20 percent of America’s power from wind turbines by 2030, when U.S. electricity demand is expected to have grown nearly 40 percent.
About 5,000 megawatts of wind energy was installed in 2007, more than a third of all new U.S. power capacity. With so many new turbines, the American Wind Energy Association in Washington, D.C. concedes conflicts can occur.
“There needs to be a lot of energy education,” said Susan Williams Sloan, the group’s outreach manager. “When we do that, we’re going to have a lot more people who want more turbines in their backyard.”
In eastern Idaho, Ridgeline Energy has been forced to spend thousands of dollars on a lobbying firm whose directors include former U.S. Interior secretary and Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus to help win approval for its 150-turbine project, which would generate enough electricity to light about 300,000 homes.
On a recent weekday, Randy Gardner, Ridgeline’s project manager, drove the gravel roads beneath the turbines. Gardner said he finds little evidence of avian mortality beneath the slow-turning blades, which are adjusted by computers based in California as the breeze shifts. Several hundred yards away, little sound can be heard.
“I could sit out here on my back porch and sip a glass of wine and it wouldn’t bother me,” he said. “Having a housing development here, now that would bother me.”
Marv Hoyt, director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s Idaho office, said his group investigated the disputed project after being contacted by both sides but opted not to intervene.
Still, Hoyt said efforts by wind farm foes to characterize Wolverine Canyon, a popular picnicking site for locals as far back as 1870, as a pristine wilderness are inaccurate. There are miles of old roads built for logging, a scattering of private cabins have been erected from valley to ridgetop and ranchers like the Stolworthys run hundreds of cattle in the steep draws.
“I have strong suspicions that developers are more against this than anybody else, because they want to put their own mark on the land,” Hoyt said. “To me, I think wind towers up there are probably OK. It’s not going to be worse or more of an impact than the things that are already are up there.”
Though VanderSloot owns dozens of parcels at the base of Wolverine Canyon near its scenic limestone spires, he says they’ve been in his family for years and he has no development plans.
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