Business and political leaders in Western Maryland's Garrett County are lining up against a proposal to allow the clearing of up to 400 mountaintop acres of state forest for the construction of 40-story wind turbines.
With a pair of public hearings scheduled this week, Garrett's Chamber of Commerce, Board of Realtors, Democratic Central Committee and Republican state delegate and senator have come out against the proposal to use two state forests in the county for wind farms. So has the mayor of the town of Oakland.
"I've taken time to talk to a lot of people, and a vast majority are against this," said state Sen. George C. Edwards, a Republican who heads the delegation from Garrett and Allegany counties. He sent a letter to Gov. Martin O'Malley asking him not to allow state land to be used for wind farms. "Even people who support windmills don't support them on state land," Edwards said.
Charlie Ross, president of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce, agreed. "There is an aesthetics issue. And people who come to Garrett County to live or visit want to see that aesthetics preserved," he said. "Since tourism is our biggest industry going right now, we don't want to do anything to harm that industry."
But David F. McAnally, chairman of Pennsylvania-based U.S. Wind Force, said he believes people will support his company's proposal to build a total of 100 turbines on two state forest tracts once they hear all the facts.
McAnally said it's worth using a fraction of 1 percent of the public land in Western Maryland to increase the supply of clean electricity to the state, which faces a power shortage in future years.
"We will reach a time when we will not be able to tell our kids or grandkids that they can turn on the light when they flick the switch," McAnally said. "Wind power is a part of that solution."
U.S. Wind Force is running ads in Western Maryland newspapers that say "Support Wind - for a Cleaner Energy Future." The company notes that Maryland has long allowed lumber companies to cut trees in state forests for timber. Some power line towers are allowed in state forests.
Author and climate change activist Mike Tidwell, who supports wind energy as a way to fight global warming, said he thinks Maryland should ban logging in state forests if it's going to prohibit wind farms. He said logging is more environmentally harmful than wind mills.
"I appeal to the governor to make a fair and balanced decision that does not favor one industry that has obvious harmful impacts versus a new industry that brings clear benefits to the state, while being admittedly imperfect," Tidwell said.
About 25,000 wind turbines across the country generate about 1 percent of America's electricity, with more than 3,000 built in the past year. Boosted by federal subsidies, scores of turbines are being built in the Midwest, Texas, California, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. But none has been built in Maryland.
Maryland has given full or preliminary approval to three companies to create wind farms on private land in the western part of the state, but the projects have been slowed by a lack of agreements with power distribution companies and other problems.
U.S. Wind Force is looking at the Savage River and Potomac state forests. The American Wind Energy Association says it does not know of any wind turbines built in state or federal forests anywhere in the United States.
U.S. Wind Force officials rode in a state helicopter with O'Malley this fall to look at Western Maryland, McAnally said. They showed the governor the 400 acres they're interested in along Backbone Mountain and Meadow Mountain.
Casper R. Taylor Jr., the former speaker of the House of Delegates from Western Maryland, has been lobbying state officials on the company's behalf. The terms of the leases would have to be negotiated, but they could include payments to the state of roughly $1 million a year for 20 years, according to state and company officials.
But before the O'Malley administration considers the company's proposal, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources must set a general policy on whether to allow wind turbines on state land, said Deputy Secretary Eric Schwaab.
"We are focused on the public policy question of whether it's appropriate to use state forests to satisfy our goal of increasing the production of sustainable energy," Schwaab said.
Electricity transmission towers in state forests can be 100 feet tall, about a quarter the height of the proposed turbines. Part of the Savage River forest is used by natural gas companies for the underground storage of methane, a use inherited when the state received the land from the federal government in the 1950s, Schwaab said. Over the past two decades, the state has turned down all requests for natural gas wells in state forests.
Each acre in Savage River State Forest is logged about once every 120 years, Schwaab said. Last year, trees were cut from about 245 of the forest's 55,000 acres.