Nowhere have the problems been more apparent than with the wind-farm issue, which has divided the community. Five different companies have approached Davies with offers to lease parts of the Roaring Springs Ranch for up to 400 wind turbines. "We told them we have no interest. We don't want to upset the natural environment," says Davies, who grew up in eastern Utah during an oil boom. "There is a change to the community when energy comes in."
But other neighbors found the offers more enticing. Hoyt Wilson's Mann Lake Ranch sits below the cliffs on the northeast edge of Steens Mountain, just outside the protected area boundary. "The only thing we have to sell are natural resources," Wilson says. "If we can't use (them), then you pretty much depopulate the area." He leased a ridgeline to Columbia Energy for a 104-megawatt development called Echanis, which is contracted to sell electricity to Southern California Edison.
The project -- the only one permitted so far -- ignited controversy, not just because of its possible impacts on nesting golden eagles, sage grouse and other species, but because of the way in which it was handled. Columbia Energy Partners carefully divided its Steens wind interest into Echanis and three other 104-megawatt projects (one of which is on state land outside the protected area), slipping under the 105-megawatt threshold that requires state review, including the evaluation of impacts on wildlife. So Echanis received what critics describe as a quick and dirty approval from Harney County officials. After environmentalists protested, Columbia Energy promised to submit land-use permits through the state for the remaining developments, something it has yet to do. Echanis is scheduled to begin construction this summer, pending approval of a 29-mile-long transmission line.
That line, which would cross 10 miles of federal land, is now under review by the BLM. The agency has listed it as a renewable-energy priority; a decision is expected later this spring. When it came up for discussion at an advisory council meeting last summer, both Otley and Wilson, who hold seats, were excused due to conflict of interest. Because two other seats were vacant, the council lacked a quorum. Those who were present weighed in, with five, including Davies, opposing the line and associated wind developments. Three other members were neutral or in favor.
Even if the council had tackled the project, there's little it could have done, at least directly; it has no authority over private land in the protected area. The council could urge the BLM not to approve the transmission line, and thus force the company to choose a longer route that wouldn't cross federal land. Or it could try to access the $25 million authorized by the Steens Act to purchase inholdings and development rights. But Congress would have to appropriate the money, plus matching funds would have to be raised, and so far no one appears eager to go that route. Besides, ranchers like Otley could always refuse the buyouts. "To me, jobs and sustainable energy are more important than the viewshed," Otley says.
It seems that the much-vaunted collaborative process has unraveled on Steens Mountain. Today, the stakeholders' interests appear as fractured as ever. "We will continue to fight this," says Bob Salinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society in Portland. He expects the wind farm to be approved, and when that happens, there is, he says, "strong potential for litigation."