Agency finds wind farm could hurt bear habitat

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(Host) A wind project planned for national forest land in southern Vermont would supply needed clean energy for the region, but could also harm bear habitat.

Those are among the findings in a Draft Environmental Impact Statement released this week by the Forest Service.

The federal agency looked at various alternatives – including a scaled back development. But it declined to say which one it supports.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) When it was first unveiled several years ago, the Deerfield project was the first ever wind development proposed in a national forest.

That’s changed now. Others are planned around the country for public land. But the Deerfield project is the furthest along in the regulatory pipeline.

The development inched along a bit more this week with the release of the Forest Service’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

The massive document looks at the environmental pros and cons of the 34 megawatt project. It also opens the door for the public to comment in detail.

The document points out that the region needs clean energy. Meg Mitchell is the forest supervisor for the Green Mountain National Forest.

(Mitchell) "Congress and the administration have both emphasized the importance of federal and public lands as places where we look at alternative energy. And the benefits of that are clear air, more energy independence, all the things people are hearing about in the world right now, and better air quality.”

(Dillon) The 17 wind turbines would be about 400 feet high. They’d be built by a private company on Forest Service land in the southern Vermont towns of Readsboro and Searsburg. An existing wind project built by Green Mountain Power is located on private land nearby.

About 80 acres are needed for the new development. This part of the national forest is very remote, so the Forest Service document mentions concerns about the aesthetic impact of the tall turbines on the ridgelines.

Birds and bats are an issue, as well. The environmental impact statement says that each turbine could kill about two bats a year. Migrating birds could also run into the spinning blades.

(Mitchell) "And this project also has a unique issue, and that is bear habitat, because the project is located in an area that is good bear habitat.”

(Dillon) Mitchell said bear habitat is measured by the number of beech trees that the bears have scarred as they forage for food. But she says biologists disagree about this project’s impact on the bears.

(Mitchell) "So, we know how many trees each of the alternatives we’re looking at would affect. But there’s a difference of opinion in the science about what that is then going to do to the bear habitat. It’s in an area that has a lot of bear-scarred beech, but you’re also intruding into an area that has a lot of bear-scarred beech.”

(Dillon) The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources is worried about the project. The impact statement cites concern from a state biologist that removal of the beech trees would lead to an unacceptable loss of habitat.

The draft environmental impact statement looks at the project as proposed, and then examines alternatives, including no construction and a smaller development.

The Forest Service declined to endorse one alternative over another. Mitchell said she has to wait until a parallel review by the state Public Service Board is finished.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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