By George E. Beetham Jr.
This story begins in 2002 when a notice appeared in the Grant County Press about a wind farm that was to stretch from well north of Route 42 along the Allegheny Front to scenic Stack Rock, which is part of the Nature Conservancy’s Bear Rocks Preserve. After reading it I recalled that the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy had worked to mitigate the visual impact of the Backbone Mountain wind farm.
I was not a member of the Highlands Conservancy at the time but I left a message on its website inquiring what it might be doing about this proposed wind farm. The late Peter Schoenfeld replied that they were not aware of this new development and asked for more details. Thus began my environmental stewardship.
I am not opposed to wind energy but I don’t believe it should be located on mountain ridges. Locate it close to the centers where electric energy is most in demand, in or near cities. It makes no sense to locate these industrial facilities on the few mountains not destroyed by coal mining or fracking.
So I joined the Highlands Conservancy and found myself on the wind committee chaired by Mr. Schoenfeld. Our goal was not to stop the development, but to hopefully mitigate the impact. One issue that surfaced was the distance from wind turbines to where they can’t be seen. The industry claimed that distance was five miles. We quickly determined that it was farther, but how far? I was able to photograph the Backbone Mountain turbines from Deep Creek Lake in Maryland, a distance of about 32 miles. We knew the Public Service Commission (PSC) would not accept that distance, but it established that the turbines are intrusive on the horizon.
It happened that the PSC was revising its rules on wind farms and we got ourselves into the process. We also involved ourselves in the Allegheny Front permitting process.
Frank Young, the Highlands Conservancy president at the time, and Schoenfeld travelled to Charleston to present our case in person,
I did a map study showing that if the development were moved north by a little more than a mile, intervening knobs higher than the towers might obscure it from Bear Rocks. It would also move it away from Stack Rock.
The PSC was receptive to our efforts and visited Bear Rocks to see for themselves what the situation was. They evidently agreed with our position. The final order moved the southern limit to a point about two miles north of Stack Rock, farther than we had sought.
The wind farm was built and continues to generate power. But its impact was mitigated somewhat.
Now, 16 years after the newspaper notice, some of the land we saved has been donated to the West Virginia Nature Conservancy, it was announced last month. The addition totals 1,143 acres, more than double the existing 477 acres of the Bear Rocks Preserve. According to Thomas Minney, state director, there are three parcels in the donation.
The largest consists of 546 acres along the Allegheny Front stretching for about a mile north of Stack Rock. That area will open to the public once trails are established and maps published, Minney said.
Of the two smaller parcels, not all will be open to the public, he said.
When those lands became available, “we moved quickly,” Minney commented. “We were happy to do the transaction.”
He said the additions preserve ecologically significant land: raptor migration habitat, wetlands, heath barrens, and a unique climate environment. It will serve as a science observation area.
“It’s also a backdrop for a lot of recreational opportunities,” he remarked.
For those of us who labored to keep that section of the Allegheny Front clear of development, there is the joy of seeing our efforts pay off in this one area, But there are many battles to come. There are many threats to the highlands of West Virginia. We won’t win all the battles, but we will do what we can to save what we can.