Saturday, Aug. 16, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Before Nevada can become the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy, it will have to come to peace with the hunters in Lincoln County.
In Today's Sun
In that rural stretch north of Las Vegas, county commissioners oppose plans to blanket four mountaintops with enough tall wind energy turbines to power 250,000 homes.
Nothing against a wind farm, the elected officials say, they just don’t want windmills atop prime elk and deer habitat where families have come for generations to hunt on federal lands.
The dispute is opening a new front in the cultural and environmental wars in the West.
Should Nevada’s federal lands be preserved for outdoorsmen — that odd coalition of hunters and hikers that helped protect so much of the nation’s public lands from development a generation ago?
Or should the sunny desert floor and windy mountain ridges that have long been home to mining and logging host a new industrial use — a green one that can help the country chart a new energy future?
In Lincoln County, population 4,000, the answer so far has been the former.
When a wind developer first suggested putting a couple of hundred turbines atop Wilson and Table mountains several years ago, hardly anyone spoke in favor at a public hearing.
County Commission Chairwoman Ronda Hornbeck said existing dirt roads and trails to the mountaintops would have to be widened to carry the giant turbines on tractor-trailers.
Even if the elk and deer did stick around, she doubted the power company would allow hunters to fire their rifles so close to the turbines.
The region is known for excellent hunting, she said. “It’s who we are in Nevada. It would be such a loss to have that whole top of those two mountaintops taken away and put these 250-foot towers up there.”
So enthusiastic was the county in its opposition that it persuaded other counties to join. In the spring, the Nevada Association of Counties unanimously passed a resolution reaffirming counties’ rights to oppose wind energy development on public lands that will “negatively impact the environment, economy and quality of life in their counties.”
Developers think hunters and windmills can co-exist. They submitted a development proposal last week to the Bureau of Land Management, launching what will be a two-year environmental review.
Developers also say a wind farm offers economic development potential for Lincoln, where some officials support a proposed coal plant near the southern edge as a jobs engine, and point to wind farms in Texas where cattle graze at the foot of turbines and wildlife continues to flourish.
Sharing land with hunters might not be ideal, but it can work, said Charley Parnell, a spokesman for Edison Mission Group, a subsidiary of Edison International, which is jointly pursuing the project with Nevada Wind, a local company. The construction roads would be temporary, he adds.
Andy Kirk, a UNLV history professor who studies the West, sees in Lincoln County the emergence of a new tension within the environmental community that will become more widespread across the West in coming years.
“What’s happening in Nevada is just a heightened version of what is happening and will happen all over America: You’ve got a new environmental ethic that is at times in conflict with an older environmental ethic, which presents a real conundrum,” Kirk says.
“Nobody’s quite figured out how they’re all going to go together.”