A developer studies the potential of a wind farm near Tucson


TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — A developer is exploring the potential for what would be Arizona’s largest wind farm on a stretch of high desert in Pinal County about 30 miles north of Tucson.

But the company’s plan to erect up to 83 wind turbines on the site known as Oak Wells has already sparked opposition from local ranchers who say the wind farm would harm rangelands as well as the environment and native wildlife.

Oak Wells Wind LLC, an Arizona company created by Boston-based Galehead Development, has been testing winds with a test station set up in the area since last fall, conducted initial studies of bird populations locals and encountered state and federal wildlife. officials.

Galehead has partnered with Steelhead Americas, the North American development arm of Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas, to survey wind resources in an “area of ​​interest” of approximately 44,000 acres.

No decision has been made on whether to proceed with the wind project, which, if built at a proposed capacity of 300 megawatts, would be the largest in the state, a project official said.

“At this time, we are still evaluating the viability of a wind farm in the Oak Wells area, but we believe there would be strong interest if it turns out to be a an area viable for development,” said Patrick Brown, a project development manager at Vestas.

That’s not a certainty – the wind potential of most of Arizona, including the vast majority of Pinal County, is rated as poor or marginal.

Although no buyer for wind power has been lined up, Brown noted that Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s largest electric utility and the Arizona region’s electricity provider. Oak Wells plans to acquire 600 to 800 MW of renewable energy over the next two years. to achieve the goal of providing 100% renewable energy to its customers by 2050.

Oak Wells Wind’s request for a wind test station has been backed by a major landowner in the area, Tucson-based Anam Inc., which has raised cattle in the area for years and is expected to derive revenue rental of the proposed wind farm.

In the early 2000s, Anam proposed a subdivision for up to 28,000 homes on its Willow Springs Ranch land near the wind farm site.

Although the Oak Wells wind project is still in the exploration phase, it has already drawn opposition from a group of local cattle ranchers.

In January, the Southern Arizona Cattlemen’s Protective Association wrote a letter to Oak Wells Wind and local and state officials, opposing the proposed wind farm on the grounds that it would threaten rangeland improvements essential to ranching. , as well as local wildlife, including water developments, erosion-control structures, and pasture management programs.

“We oppose a project of such magnitude in our membership area,” said the group, which was founded in 1955 and represents ranching families in Pinal, Pima and Santa Cruz counties. “Much of the potentially affected land in the project area is multi-generational ranching, some of which has been continuously farmed for nearly 150 years under single family ownership.”

The ranchers’ association said range improvements and grazing schedules will be affected by new access roads, construction sites and staging areas during construction of the proposed wind farm.

Association member Katie Cline, whose family has ranched in the area for decades, said the wind farm developer included private land in its project study area without consulting landowners.

“That’s why our hackles are super bred right now,” said Cline, whose family currently manages about 350 head of cattle at Flying UW and Haydon Combe ranches.

The herders’ association also says the wind farm would open the door for further development in the area, leading to further loss of rangeland and damage to wildlife, noting that the project area is part of the connectivity assessment of Pinal County Wildlife that was created to support Pinal County. Master plan for green spaces and pathways.

The potential wind farm area is an important migratory route “for many local and international wildlife, large and small,” including desert bighorn sheep, the group said. The area is also a habitat for the ferruginous cactus pygmy owl, currently nominated for an endangered species list, as well as the Sonoran desert tortoise, a protected species in Arizona and a candidate for federal “endangered” status. .

A long-standing study of turtles by local ranchers sits across the footprint of the area proposed for the wind project, and the wind farm could place the turtle in an endangered status, with ” serious consequences for all private, state and federal lands in the Southwest.

“We actually have a pretty healthy population of Sonoran Desert Tortoises here, and our family actually studied this tortoise for over 30 years and kind of helped keep it from being listed (as in the process of being listed). disappearance),” Cline said.

Vestas’ Brown said the company is aware of ranchers’ concerns and is committed to working with community stakeholders and private landowners to address any concerns about a potential wind farm disrupting ranching operations.

“Once a windmill is built, ranchers can move cattle up to the base of the windmill,” Brown said, noting that each windmill takes up about half an acre of land, including a road. ‘access.

“Livestock can co-exist with wind turbines without a problem,” he said, adding that wind projects also provide additional annual income to landowners, which increases their financial security.

Developers of the Oak Wells project originally targeted the fourth quarter of 2024 to bring the wind farm into service, but Brown said initial plans could change.

The project must eliminate a series of federal, state and local regulatory obstacles.

Oak Wells Wind obtained a special temporary land use permit from Pinal County last fall to erect the test station on private land in the area to collect wind data through August. The company has yet to file a development plan with the county for the wind farm itself.

In November, Brown said, project representatives met online with officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department to discuss early findings from a study of protected species that may inhabit or use the area of ​​the wind farm, and other fields. studies to assess risk and guide siting of wind turbines to minimize potential impacts to birds, consistent with USFWS Onshore Wind Energy Guidelines and Eagle Conservation Plan guidelines.

In an initial site survey presented to wildlife agencies, the developer lists the likely or possible presence of federal and state protected species, including birds, reptiles – including the Sonoran desert tortoise and the gila monster – and mammals, including bats and plants.

Additional required studies will be completed over two years, but Brown said the company does not anticipate needing USFWS permits “unless unavoidable impacts on protected species are expected,” which will be determined after review. additional studies.

Findings and next steps will be discussed with the agencies, which could include the application of “best management practices” for construction and operation, additional studies or permitting and mitigation measures, said Brown.

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