Agency sets out land use rules -- In federal forests

The United States Forest Service (USFS) is close to formalising new regulations for how it treats wind power projects. The agency oversees 78 million hectares of national forests and grasslands in the US, an area roughly equivalent in size to Texas. It includes some strong wind sites, among them many wind-swept ridges and mountains in the eastern US. The new rules should provide more certainty for companies pursuing development in those areas, but the way they are shaping up may turn developers away instead.

The USFS is taking a broad and perhaps overly cautious approach, says Laurie Jodziewicz with the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). Least inviting is a requirement that every project site undergo two years of pre-construction environmental monitoring followed by three years of post construction monitoring. "We just don't know that that's necessarily always going to be helpful and it's very dependent on the site and can be quite costly," says Jodziewicz. She would prefer not to see a one-size fits all policy.

The USFS is also proposing that all aviation warning lights be white strobes. Jodziewicz questions this because red strobes are the wind industry's preference since they are less obtrusive and have been shown not to attract birds more than white lights.

The proposed rules are available for public comment and may be amended by the agency before a final implementation. The level of likely interest in wind development on USFS lands is unknown. Lack of clear regulation has mainly kept wind project developers away, though two are actively pursuing projects in USFS territory. PPM Energy is planning 34 MW in the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont on the same ridge as an existing 6 MW wind plant called Searsburg, owned by Vermont's Green Mountain Power and not on national forest land. Eleven Zond 550 kW turbines have been turning there since 1997.

The PPM project must go through an extensive review by the USFS, which will include a National Environmental Policy Act review, widely considered an exhaustive process. "We believe we'll see more projects proposed on forest service land," says PPM's Jan Johnson. "Due to how cumbersome the permitting process is, PPM hasn't pursued it too strongly, but there are a fair number of locations where it will eventually make sense." Another unknown company is in early stage development in a national forest in Michigan.

Jodziewicz says USFS territory is similar to the 108 million hectares of federal land governed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM, after protracted consultation, put its wind power project guidelines into practice at the end of 2005. The guidelines set a standard lease rate for forest land of $2500 a year for each installed MW, which is competitive with most private land lease deals, says Jodziewicz. The USFS is following BLM's lead in general, though with a seemingly higher bar for environmental review. Regardless, Jodziewicz says it is a move in the right direction for the USFS.

"This is another agency that understands that the wind business is getting bigger and while there may not be a gold-rush mentality, they will be seeing more projects proposed for their resources they are in charge of handling," says Jodziewicz.