Oregon’s high desert and wind energy: opportunities and strategies for responsible development

The Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) and five other conservation groups released this report in response to the growing pressure to site renewable energy projects on open desert land in Oregon. While the ONDA supports renewable energy development and believes that such development can help reduce fossil fuel consumption and create sustainable economies for rural communities, the organization sees an urgent need to analyze where wind power potential is the highest and wildlife and social conflicts are the lowest. The analysis is important in ensuring projects can be developed without degradation of desert wildlands and damage to sensitive wildlife populations. This report was created through the mapping and analysis of the areas identified by the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory as having the best wind power potential. This data is compared with sensitive natural resources such as Greater sage-grouse breeding areas. The report includes a narrative outlining the nature of the potential conflicts with wind energy development as well as Best Practices and guidelines to minimize impacts.

Executive Summary

Oregon's high desert has world-class wildlife and wildland values that deserve protection. Likewise, the region has outstanding wind power resources that could be developed as part of state and national efforts to create energy independence and develop clean sources of renewable energy. Oregonians have the opportunity to develop wind energy responsibly. The key to successful development will be siting wind power strategically in areas suitable for wind power facilities after taking into account other valuable resources in those areas. As interest in constructing utility-scale wind power facilities increases, siting decisions that allow wind power to be developed in a way that protects special landscapes and sensitive wildlife will mutually benefit wind power companies, government entities, local communities, and the larger public.

This report provides an initial analysis of wildlife habitats and landscapes sensitive to wind developments throughout Oregon's high desert. Some of these lands and species are sufficiently sensitive or unique to require the exclusion of wind energy development altogether, while other categories would permit wind energy development if certain best practices are implemented. By overlaying wind resource potential with these other natural values, a picture emerges showing where wind power development will have the least social conflict and environmental impact.

Considerations for Wildlife

Many types of wildlife are known or expected to be sensitive to industrial wind power development. Because of the propensity for wind turbines to kill birds through collisions with spinning blades and bats from air pressure trauma is established, it is preferable to site turbines in areas where there is low concentration of bird and bat activity. Roads, powerlines and other developments associated with wind projects can also lead to habitat fragmentation and the displacement of wildlife from preferred habitats, particularly for sensitive species such as Greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus).

Potential impacts on big game in areas such as winter range have been suggested by studies examining ungulate reactions to various types of infrastructure and disturbance similar to what may be encountered during development and/or operation of a wind development site. Potential impacts on small mammals remain poorly understood and more study is needed to reach definitive conclusions. Overhead powerlines and other infrastructure can lead to an increase in perching and nesting sites for predatory birds, significantly increasing the predation risk to small mammals and birds in the area.

It is important to consider that existing traditional land protection categories may not be sufficient to protect critical wildlife populations. It is important also to consider impacts that occur in the airspace. Placement of turbines in low value habitats and developed landscapes can cause significant impacts if the airspace is used by high concentrations of birds or bats. It is critical to consider both the terrestrial habitat and wildlife usage of the airspace.

Sensitive Landscapes

Oregon is known throughout the world for its iconic western landscapes. Many of these, like national parks, wilderness areas, and wilderness study areas, have been placed off-limits to industrial activities by federal law or regulation. Others, such as roadless areas and Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, have limited protective designations which would tend to hinder the timely development of wind projects and might preclude development in some cases. There is a third category of lands, Citizen Proposed Wilderness, which may lack formal protection at present but have a high public profile, strong scenic values, and sensitive wildlife habitat and therefore development would potentially face stiff public opposition.

Historical and cultural sites and trails are typically protected by federal law which requires that the sites as well as their historic settings be protected. Overall, open spaces in Oregon are highly valued, which means that projects that do not impair prominent viewsheds are less likely to face opposition. By steering wind projects away from lands where industrial development would be controversial, wind developers can reap the benefits of maintaining their "green" credentials and achieve a speedier approval process that enjoys strong and broad public support.

Prioritizing Wind Power Development in Oregon

When sensitive resources are overlaid with wind power potential on a map of Oregon, it becomes apparent that some areas are unlikely prospects for wind energy due to low winds or multiple environmental sensitivities, while other areas have strong wind resources according to National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) data and fewer resource conflicts.

For the purposes of this analysis, some lands were treated as "exclusion areas" because legal restrictions associated with state and/or federal law effectively preclude development of these areas. Other areas were treated as "high conflict" areas because of wildlife habitat values, federal designations, and/or citizen proposed wilderness areas that are likely or known to be incompatible with industrial scale wind development. "Moderate conflict" areas included a variety of areas where additional and in some cases extensive mitigation and monitoring would be required as part of any proposed development (see Table 1). For mapping purposes, "moderate conflict" areas were included with "low conflict" areas. Conflict levels within 3 miles on each side of existing transmission lines were reduced one level to acknowledge the potential advantages and benefits of developing projects along pre-existing transmission lines rather than in currently unfragmented habitats.

There are approximately 6.8 million acres of land in the study area that have low or moderate potential for environmental or social conflict, 13.6 million acres with high potential for conflict and 3.8 million acres that are currently excluded from development. As illustrated in Map 1, there are approximately 467,000 acres of low to moderate conflict areas that our analyses show have high wind resource (NREL Class 3 or greater). There are an additional 927,000 acres that have similarly high wind resource but have potentially high natural resource or social conflicts. Approximately 691,000 acres with high wind resource potential are currently excluded from development.

Map 2 outlines currently proposed wind projects and illustrates whether these projects are proposed in high, moderate or low conflict areas. Appendix A includes maps showing the proposed projects on a county-by-county basis.

Site-specific research and a growing understanding of wind development impacts may reveal unforeseen impacts in these areas however we encourage developers and permitting authorities to first consider development in these areas. By doing so, Oregon will be able to reach our renewable energy goals while ensuring that Oregon's outstanding landscapes and fully functioning ecosystems are preserved. In developing wind projects, we also propose the following siting recommendations:

1) Conduct at least two years of pre-development environmental studies using standardized methods which demonstrate the proposed site's comparative limited use by, and importance to, sensitive wildlife and plant species. These studies should pay special attention to breeding and rearing habitat, movement corridors and habitat connectivity.

2) Exclude from wind power siting and transmission line construction consideration the following areas: National Parks, Wildlife Refuges, USFS Roadless Areas, Wilderness, Wilderness Study Areas, Important Bird Areas and areas within 3 miles of greater sage-grouse leks.

3) Establish support from county government and from municipalities located within 5 miles of a project.

4) Avoid viewshed impacts on historic trails and sites, National Parks, Wilderness, Wild and Scenic Rivers and other high-value recreation areas including the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area and Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge.

5) Prioritize potential wind development sites located near existing power transmission infrastructure, final customers, or areas of previously disturbed or converted lands such as agricultural fields.

6) Conduct comprehensive evaluations of conditions and resources at potential sites consistent with the Oregon Columbia Plateau Ecoregion Wind Energy Siting and Permitting Guidelines.

7) Prepare studies, development and mitigation plans and conduct the permitting process to ensure protection of natural resources by following the Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council's site certification process or a local process that involves an equivalent level of mandatory and enforceable resource protection standards and that considers cumulative impacts of wind development throughout Oregon's high desert.


Developing wind energy within Oregon's high desert in a way that is sensitive to wildlife and protects important landscapes can be achieved. This report identifies both areas of high development potential and a proposed process for moving forward. We suggest that these areas be considered first for wind development and that within these areas, previously disturbed habitats such as cropland be prioritized. This report is intended to be a work in progress; vulnerable species may have been overlooked during completion of this report and as our understanding of wind development grows, such research should be incorporated into decision-making and planning. Oregon's high desert is an area that is relatively understudied and there are gaps or biases in the report due to data unavailability. We have done our best to draw relevant studies from both Oregon's high desert and beyond to address this insufficiency. This report is not meant to substitute for on-the-ground studies but to provide initial guidance that will be further informed by future research and local studies.

Lastly, as outlined in the report, wind development needs to be considered in terms of cumulative effects. Currently, projects are being approved on an individual basis with no collective evaluation of social and environmental impacts. We are concerned that such an approach could have significant impacts on wildlife and landscape connectivity. We strongly encourage a planned approach to wind development that includes prioritizing development of transmission lines in locations that encourage wind and other renewable energy development in areas with lower social and environmental conflicts. Wind energy promises to play a significant role in providing clean energy and strong job creation in areas that need it most but it must not be done in a way that fails to recognize and address its true costs.


MAY 1 2009
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