Right to develop challenged by right to protectWritten by Jennifer Womack
“We’ve been trying to diversify and figure out some avenues where we can have multiple families stay on the ranch,” says Mark Grant. The Grant’s Turtle Rock Ranch is home to Lester and Norma Jean Grant and their sons Mark and Craig and their families. “We tried tourism, hunting and fishing and all of that,” says Mark, “but with the economic downturn that pretty much disappeared.”
In March 2008 the family partnered with neighboring rancher and cousin Rick Grant and his family to erect an anemometer in the area to assess their wind development potential. The results were marketable and the families began negotiations with Wasatch Wind early 2009 and signed a contract in September of this year.
“We did a lot of negotiating to make sure the contract is safe for us and will benefit the community,” says Rick. Another six ranches, some on either side of the Grants, are in various stages of adding land to the Wasatch lease holdings.
Opposition from other Laramie Range landowners took root before the Grants leased their rights to Wasatch. “Our two ranches sit right between the proposed routes for Gateway 1E and 1W,” explains Rick. While the two projects aren’t interconnected or co-dependent, the North Laramie Range Alliance (NLRA) was created to oppose a route that would have taken the transmission line through the mountains. The group was successful in sending the Bureau of Land Management and PacifiCorp back to the drawing board in search of a more publicly palatable route.
More recently NLRA has turned its attention toward wind energy development. In late October they appeared before the Converse County Planning Commission to request a moratorium on wind energy development in the North Laramie Range. While the Planning Commission can’t pass a moratorium, they can recommend such actions to the Converse County Commissioners. At the end of the afternoon-long meeting the Planning Commission recommended a 90-day, countywide moratorium on all development in excess of $10 million.
Converse County Commission Chairman Ed Werner says he would be surprised to see the moratorium progress beyond the Commissioner’s regularly scheduled meeting on Nov. 4. “The moratorium just isn’t warranted,” says Werner noting that nothing significant is going to happen within the next 90 days in terms of development. The debate may, according to Werner, speak to the larger need to develop a level of zoning that allows for greater public input when new industrial level projects are considered within the county. Any such measure would have to occur through zoning, the only route provided by state statute, but Werner envisions something that would guide the process rather than accept or reject particular projects based on where they are located. Zoning has long been rejected in Converse County.
“I am concerned about industrialization of the Northern Laramie Range,” says Diemer True who is a member of the NLRA, a Converse County landowner and was the group’s spokesman at the recent Planning Commission hearing. “There are a lot of places in Wyoming where wind development would be appropriate on a large scale, but it doesn’t seem to me it ought to be in the mountains.”
True says he finds it perplexing that Wasatch isn’t focusing its attention in less controversial areas. “Where people want it and it’s not going to industrialize a pristine area, and I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but where we’ve got these coalitions of landowners it makes sense, just not in the mountains.”
“Most of the people who belong to the Alliance I wouldn’t consider neighbors,” says Mark. “Almost none of them live here, they’re just landowners of adjacent property. They show up sometimes.” In most cases, Mark says, “The wind towers won’t even be visible to those who are opposing the project.”
True says proximity of the turbines to his ranch depend on ongoing negotiations by Wasatch to secure additional leases. “They have proposed to place some turbines just to the south of us, but it’s not on the Grant property,” says True.
Details of the Wasatch project, to be located on an open ridge on the north-facing slope of the mountain range south of Glenrock, are minimal. As Rick explains, Wasatch is in the process of finalizing negotiations, testing wind speeds and modeling the best approach. John Aubrecht of the company, during the Planning Commission meeting, said they were planning to appear before the Board of Land Commissioners in pursuit of state leases in the project area as early as December of this year.
They could meet a non-developing competitor in their efforts to secure a lease. True says the NLRA is working to secure a recreational lease on the state-owned Duncan Ranch and other area state property. It’s an effort that could leave the Board of Land Commissioners choosing between the recreational lease and a wind development lease. An agreement with the NLRA, says True, would preclude wind energy development on the state property. He says the NLRA became involved at the request of the individuals who hold the lease on the state land.
“You’re not going to see hundreds of turbines,” says Mark.
“They’re also not landowners who are here every day,” says Rick.
Open space, says Mark, will receive greater protection with the wind development project in place. “If you go up the canyon there’s a place my great uncle sold out in the 1970s and now there are 30 separate landowners up there. Every little 40 acres has to have a fence around it and then they build a road, and then they build a cabin. Actually, on a per acre basis, there’s more development in these rural subdivisions than there is in a wind development.”
Mark adds, “One of the biggest tools they’ve used to gather people is that there will be no hunting. There are few people in the Alliance who allow hunting. We’re the ones who allow hunting. It’s in our contract and it’s important that we be allowed to let people hunt. If we don’t, we’ll get our grass taken away by the wildlife. The hunting rights will stay with landowners and hunting will continue to be allowed.”
“Very few of the Alliance members make their livings in agriculture,” says Lester.
So will Wasatch stand by the Grants if the battle escalates? Right now, Rick says the company remains committed to seeing the project developed.
“But,” says Mark, “when it’s a business deal there’s a point where it becomes too expensive.” Wasatch’s website details a project near Spanish Fork, Utah, but simply lists Wyoming and a handful of other states as proposed project areas at this time.
For the community, Mark says the economic debate can’t boil down to the number of people it takes to maintain the turbines. “We’ll be making money. We’re businesses and we’ll expand and we’ll start being able to spend more at local businesses.”
Mark says, “There’s definitely an issue of property rights. I think anyone should be able to do what they want on their land. We don’t necessarily like all the subdivisions up here and all the big buildings they’ve put up, but it’s their land and that’s what they do. I think there’s an area where we could negotiate.” To date, however, he says the Alliance hasn’t been open to negotiations.
Speaking for himself and not the NLRA True says, “I don’t see any middle ground because you’re either going to have large-scale wind development or no wind development. It doesn’t look to me like you can have a small farm because that won’t justify building the transmission lines.”
“It’s a very, very difficult issue,” says True, “but the development will hurt the private property rights of their neighbors. Somebody needs to decide a balance between competing property rights.” True compares the development to construction of a hazardous waste dump where the impacts don’t end with property lines.