Commission discusses wind development access, core areas at med-Sept. meeting
Casper – When the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission met Sept. 9 in Casper some of the issues discussed were maintaining public access in wind development areas and the clarification of Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) recommendations regarding the state’s Sage Grouse Core Area Strategy.
WGFD Deputy Director John Emmerich presented both topics to the Commission.
“Because of the concern for potential loss of recreational access by sportsmen and the concern by companies about potential vandalism to wind turbines, the Commission has been asked to make a resolution to make it clear the Commission advocates maintaining access for hunters, anglers and other recreationalists in areas where wind farms will be developed,” he said.
Commissioner Aaron Clark, who also advises Governor Freudenthal regarding wind energy development, proposed that perhaps the Industrial Siting Council (ISC) should address hunter access to private lands in their applications from wind developers. “Maybe we should encourage ISC to adopt conditions that would continue access where it exists on private lands,” he said.
Clark cited the concern that after a first incident on a wind farm there would be pressure on the landowner from the developer to shut down hunting on that land. “If there was a condition in the permit from ISC we would have a point to be involved in the discussion and we could offer up some way to mitigate that damage and take the pressure off the landowner,” he said.
Commissioner Clark Allan said he was in favor of anything the Commission can do to maintain public access where it’s been previously available.
The Commission passed a resolution that reads, “The Wyoming Game and Fish Department continues to advocate that wind energy development companies allow public access for sportsmen, in particular hunters, in areas with wind farms on all public lands and on private lands where the private landowner wants to allow hunting.”
“The value in a resolution like this is that it will bring balance to the arguments out there that say wind turbines are in jeopardy from hunters,” said WGFD Director Steve Ferrell. “Hunters have an impeccable track record of excellent safety on the landscape. Those other than sportsmen shoot up things on the landscape. Developers closing access to sportsmen will not prevent vandals from doing the things they do.”
Emmerich also addressed the Commission with clarification regarding the intent of recommendations pertaining to the Sage Grouse Core Area Strategy outlined by the Governor’s office.
“It was our intent in working with the Sage Grouse Implementation Team to provide as much flexibility as possible to encourage development in non-core areas,” he said.
“The goal with the Governor’s executive order was to maintain enough sage grouse for connectivity across the landscape outside core areas, but there’s a table we released that lists moderate, high and extreme impacts to sage grouse. When the BLM looks at that table, they see ‘extreme impact’ and automatically consider that ‘significant’ in terms of NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act), which would trigger an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) process,” explained Emmerich.
Well pads in excess of three pads per section are considered by the WGFD to be an extreme impact to sage grouse. In places such as the Powder River Basin, which is already densely developed, the addition of one more well here and there could automatically prompt the BLM to initiate a long-term EIS.
“If we’re going to honor the intent of the executive order in terms of simplifying the non-core areas, we don’t want the BLM to trigger an EIS, but instead first conduct the EA (Environmental Evaluation) to evaluate the impacts,” said Emmerich. “It wouldn’t preclude an EIS, but just because there’s three well pads per acre we don’t consider that a ‘significant impact’ to the regional population if the core areas are in place.”
“Because we have very little statutory authority to deny development on existing leases we had to find incentives to get industry to participate in our core area strategy,” said Clark. “A lot of time went into working with industry on the core areas and their design so we could maintain mineral production, which pays our bills, while protecting the majority of the birds.”
There had to be something in it for everybody, said Clark. “Outside the core areas, where we’re really going to hold the line, we need to create flexibility. The only carrot we can offer industry at this point is avoiding triggering the full analysis for NEPA outside core areas.”
“This is a real world example of when BLM looked at a WGFD document and saw that density was high and said that triggers an EIS. It’s incumbent on the state to say no it doesn’t, not under core area strategy, because we need this flexibility outside the core areas,” continued Clark.
“The incentives in the non-core areas are the carrot to keep industry from developing their core areas that are already leased,” said Emmerich. “That’s the trade-off.”
Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.