June, in addition to providing another abundance of rain, has produced a flurry of information and actions that will be of interest to West Virginia Highlands Conservancy members.
Proposed Pump Storage Project in Tucker County, West Virginia
Freedom Works, LLC has notified the Forest Service that they will be coming back with a revised plan for the pumped storage project wherein they will be proposing to go around the Big Run Bog National Natural Landmark. We have not found a filing on the FERC docket to date.
Proposed Black Rock Industrial Wind Project
Black Rock Wind Force, LLC (“Black Rock”) has submitted a request to the West Virginia Public Service Commission (the “Commission”) to grant a Siting Certificate for the construction and operation of a 170 MW wind energy generating facility and associated interconnection and transmission facilities in Grant and Mineral Counties, West Virginia.
The 667 foot height of the proposed turbines are alarming because of the sheer dimensions – nearly twice as tall and, perhaps more importantly, they would have a blade sweep area (think plane geometry) of more than 4 times what the Laurel Mountain Wind Farm near Elkins – a blade sweep area of 16,512 square meters at Blackrock compared to only 3,930 square meters at Elkins. The potential for vastly increased numbers of bat and bird fatalities- especially for migrating birds- is enormous.
Planning for the 2020 Legislative Session
Members of the WVHC board of directors recently attended a board meeting of the West Virginia Environmental Council. It was decided that the time to start for the 2020 legislative session is now. After a discussion of the finances the WVEC board voted to hire a part time interims coordinator starting July 1 to monitor interims as they are scheduled.
Preparations for the 2020 session were discussed along with the requirement to receive member group legislative priorities sooner than later. Based on that discussion, I will be placing WVHC legislative priorities on the WVHC board agenda for July 20 to enable submitting them ASAP.
WVEC fund raising activities for the coming year were also discussed.
Panther Ridge Wildlife Habitat Enhancement Project
WVHC has filed a formal objection to the Forest Service’s Panther Ridge Wildlife Habitat Enhancement Project. This is a pretty big step for us. Other than the pipelines, we have not formally opposed a Forest Service project in a very long time. Since the end of the West Virginia Wilderness Campaign in 2009, we have built a very good working relationship with the Monongahela National Forest, particularly in the area of spruce ecosystem restoration. So we did not take this step lightly.
We objected to Panther Ridge not because we oppose the project outright, but because the Forest Service chose to take some troubling shortcuts in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis. The Forest Service has embarked on an agency-wide effort to drastically increase the amount of timber that is harvested from National Forest lands across the country. Political appointees and agency executives have decreed that this increase should occur without additional funding. To make this happen, obviously some costs are going to have to be cut somewhere. So, the agency has decided that it spends too much time and money on NEPA analyses, and it has launched an effort to “streamline” its implementation of NEPA. Part of this effort involves proposed new regulations (see this recent news release: https://www.fs.fed.us/news/releases/usda-proposes-bold-moves-improve-forests-management-grasslands). But even before the new regulations have been finalized, the agency is cutting back on the amount of time and effort that it puts into its NEPA analyses. It appears that Panther Ridge and other recently proposed projects on the Monongahela have been affected by this emphasis on doing more with less.
The proposed Panther Ridge project covers a 12,599-acre project area. The project seeks to increase young forest habitat and habitat diversity through the following activities:
- 1,218 acres of clear cutting
- 3,742 acres of thinning
- 1,145 acres of cutback borders around existing and new openings
- Use of a mulching machine on 282 acres
- 5,065 acres of prescribed fire (partially overlaps the timber harvest areas)
- Construction of 7.7 miles of new roads and widening of an additional 12 miles of existing roads
- Control of non-native invasive plants using herbicides
- A variety of other smaller scale activities, including decommissioning unneeded old roads, creating new openings, planting American chestnut seedlings in harvested areas, creating vernal ponds, and enhancing stream habitat through addition of large woody material.
We are not opposed in principle to these activities, as they are allowed and encouraged by the Forest Plan, and they have the potential to provide habitat for many wildlife species that are of interest to hunters, fishermen, and wildlife watchers. However, we identified the following critical problems with the proposed project and the associated NEPA analysis:
- Inadequate range of alternatives. The Forest Service highlighted a list of environmental issues, but then did not attempt to develop alternatives to address those issues. We think that reducing the total amount of activity would address most of the environmental issues that the Forest Service identified, while still providing the habitat diversity that they seek.
- Skid road decommissioning. The final EA falls just short of committing to decommissioning all the skid roads. Leaving them on the landscape (as the Forest Service has been doing for decades) disrupts watershed hydrology and causes sedimentation of streams.
- Inadequate assessment of the total amount of timber harvest and road building relative to limits prescribed by the Forest Plan.The Forest Service is attempting to get around these limits by defining them out of existence. The proposed harvest may or may not actually be within the limits, but we’d like to see the agency do the analysis properly so we can be sure (and so they don’t set a bad precedent that can be used on subsequent projects).
- Inadequate analysis of the impacts of the total amount of timber removal on watershed hydrology. Again, they’re massaging definitions to make it look like they aren’t removing enough timber to affect watershed hydrology. Perhaps they are and perhaps they aren’t removing enough timber to affect hydrology, but they need to do the analysis the right way to be sure.
- Potential for fire lines to impact large wood in stream channels. We’d like to see them make a firm commitment to not cutting wood in stream channels.
- Inadequate analysis of effects on terrestrial and aquatic sensitive animal species. The analysis is basically just a series of conclusory statements. While the project might not have any appreciable impacts on these species, we won’t really know for sure unless they actually produce some evidence and a well-reasoned rationale.
Now that we have submitted a formal objection, the next step in the process is for a higher level of the agency to review our objection issues and determine whether those issues represent violations of law, regulation, or policy. The District Ranger of the Marlinton-White Sulphur Ranger District is the Responsible Official for the project, so our objection will be adjudicated by the Forest Supervisor, who has authority over the entire Monongahela National Forest. If the Forest Supervisor determines that any of the issues that we raised constitute violations of law, regulation, or policy, the project will be returned to the District Ranger to correct the issues. If the Forest Supervisor determines that the project does not commit such violations, the District Ranger will sign the final decision, and implementation of the project will proceed.
2019 continues to be another busy year for the Conservancy and the highlands of West Virginia and we will keep you informed, as events occur, through the Voice.