Western public lands are key to Biden's clean energy goals. In Idaho, opposition is mounting
A few renewable energy projects proposed on public land in the Magic Valley could be boons to the clean energy targets of the Biden Administration and several Western states—but local residents are banding together in opposition.
The wind project called Lava Ridge is at the forefront, both because it’s the biggest, with up to 400 turbines that would add more than 1,000 megawatts of power, and because it’s the furthest along in the approval process. Turbines could be spinning by 2025.
Magic Valley Energy, an affiliate of New York-based LS Power, is the developer putting the project forward on Bureau of Land Management land east of Shoshone.
The company also has plans for a transmission line connecting southern Idaho to Nevada that’s already been approved and it's proposing another wind farm in Twin Falls County—the Salmon Falls Wind Project.
Though Lava Ridge first came on the radar two years ago, opposition to the project has been mounting in the past couple of months.
John Arkoosh, a Lincoln County rancher and farmer, recently helped form a group called Stop Lava Ridge.
“We're afraid it's going to be devastating to our cattle operation,” he said. “I think it's going to be devastating to the wildlife and the state of Idaho. Frankly, I don't think there's anything good to come of it for Idaho.”
Magic Valley Energy says most grazing will be able to continue during construction and that wind projects can co-exist well with cattle operations.
After an initial event last month in Jerome, the Facebook group for Stop Lava Ridge has more than 1,500 members.
Arkoosh said the group came together more formally when it started communicating with some of the leaders in the non-profit Friends of Minidoka who have been expressing their concerns about the project’s impact on the Minidoka National Historic Site in Jerome County.
The Historic Site was one stop on a tour put on by the BLM Wednesday of a few key places around the project area.
The goal was to educate the state’s Resource Advisory Council on the project, as the group made up of Idaho residents could end up making a recommendation to the agency. About 125 people, including members of the public, attended.
In a Japanese-style garden by the entrance to the former incarceration camp, Anna Tamura, a program manager for the National Park Service, explained why the site is of national significance. 13,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated there during World War II.
“The reason that Minidoka was designated is related to the fragility of democracy during times of crisis,” she said.
She added that the official management plan for the Historic Site, crafted in 2006, called for preserving the camp as it was, according to the wishes of survivors.
“We want people to understand what it was like for us when we were here at Minidoka,” Tamura said. Her mom, aunts, uncle, grandparents and great-grandparents were incarcerated there after being removed from the West Coast.
Though the National Park Service is a consulting agency on the BLM's analysis and has not officially taken a stance on the Lava Ridge project, the Friends of Minidoka organization has said changing the viewshed would dishonor the history of Japanese American incarceration—one that the community has already had to fight hard to preserve.
Company says project will boost local tax base
Outside the BLM’s Twin Falls office Wednesday, Luke Papez, the project director for Magic Valley Energy, tried to appeal to concerns raised by locals in public meetings and on social media.
He highlighted how the project could help local communities through job creation and tax revenue. He called the construction phase, which would bring about 700 jobs to the rural region for two years, a “boom time.”
“Growing up in a mining community, I felt that,” Papez said. “I felt when the price of gold and copper was high – the high school was buzzing, the town was buzzing.”
Papez said the billion-dollar project would yield $80 million in sales and tax revenue and over $500 million in economic output.
“It’s significant, truly significant, for that type of investment,” he said.
Additionally, Papez estimated the long-term operation of the wind project, which will likely have a 25 to 30-year lifespan, would generate more than $100,000 per year for school districts within the project area and $500,000 each year for the general fund in Lincoln County, as examples.
“Start to think of all those items that, oftentimes when there’s a need, ends up as a levy on your local ballot,” Papez said.
However, Arkoosh expressed uncertainty that those tax benefits would pan out as Papez outlined.
“I’m afraid our small communities are going to be overwhelmed for a few years and then they’re going to be ghost towns,” he said.
Though LS Power has not announced where the energy produced by the wind turbines would go, it’s not unlikely it’d be transported to another state. That’s been a common point of frustration among those opposed.
Papez said if each state was charged with meeting its own renewable energy needs just using in-state resources, it would result in an overproduction of developments and both utilities and ratepayers would lose out.
“We need some utility-scale investment to make the renewable energy picture work,” he said.
He pointed to a poster board map of the western U.S.
“Most of these states around us are trying to shoot for 100% clean energy,” he said. That adds up to tens of thousands of megawatts that need to come online in the next 25 years.
He said each state will likely play a role in those goals. Some northern Rocky Mountain states, like Idaho, are especially ripe for wind development.
Additionally, the Biden Administration has set clean energy targets to address the climate crisis, and as part of that, wants to develop 25 gigawatts of solar, wind and geothermal energy on public land by 2025. It’s recently cut rates and fees for developers who want to construct projects like Lava Ridge.
The Environmental Impact Statement is due out this fall
Because the BLM likely won’t be done with its draft environmental impact statement for Lava Ridge until the fall, Arkoosh and others have turned their attention to local officials.
The wind farm has been a frequent topic of discussion at county commission meetings in Lincoln, Jerome and Minidoka counties, where the turbines will be located.
Earlier in the week, more than 150 people attended a meeting of the Twin Falls County commissioners to voice their concerns with the Salmon Falls project.
Arkoosh said the group would like the counties to pass resolutions making their opposition explicit.
In Lincoln County, one commissioner, Roy Hubert, said he’s “100% against” it, while the other commissioners, Rebecca Wood and Joan Rutler, favored waiting for the impact statement to be released.
Correction: This story originally said Anna Tamura's dad, grandparents and great-grandmother were incarcerated at Minidoka; in fact, it was her mom, aunts, uncle, grandparents and great-grandparents.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio