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Is solar plan for the birds?

An 876-acre, city-owned property in the foothills east of Interstate 5 has long been eyed as a prime spot for an energy-producing solar farm. But as Ashland City Council members studied it earlier this week, they got an earful from environmentalists who noted it’s also prime habitat for a rare sparrow and two struggling species of wild plants.

Acquired by the city in 1996 as a receiving site for effluent from the city wastewater treatment plant — an idea that was abandoned — the rolling grassland and oak woodlands known as the Imperatrice property is home to the grasshopper sparrow. The bird gets its name because its trill sounds like a grasshopper, said Pepper Trail, conservation co-chairman for Rogue Valley Audubon Society and forensic ornithologist with the National Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland.

“We believe this is the largest breeding colony in at least western Oregon, if not the whole state,” said Trail, “and it’s known to be sensitive to disturbances, so any kind of road construction or solar array could cause them to abandon the site. It has happened in other places.”

The bird is “almost gone” from the Willamette Valley because of habitat loss, leaving the Imperatrice property as its prime habitat, he said. Trail suggested that “the proposed industrial-scale development” instead go “on rooftops, the airport, the university, median strips on the freeway.”

The council, however, authorized a request for proposals for construction of a large-scale, 10-to 12-megawatt, solar-generation project. The request would go out in mid-October and be reviewed in November.

Kristi Mergenthaler of the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy told the council that the bird’s population has dipped by 67 percent in the last 30 years.

“We support solar and conservation, and if the city develops it, let’s look at other locations,” said Mergenthaler. “Do parking lots, degraded land. This (Imperatrice) is not a wasteland.”

Plants also seek refuge in the Ashland foothills, with the Southern Oregon buttercup, found only in Jackson County, and the round leaf fillary, once thought extinct in Oregon, making a home on the Imperatrice land, said Mergenthaler.

The land is also being eyed as part of a trail system that would cover the eastern viewshed from Ashland to the summit of Grizzly Peak, said Mergenthaler, and could link with trails in the 4,500-acre Grizzly Peak Preserve, just to the east.

Botanist Gretchen Vos of Ashland called it a “red flag” that the council is seeking proposals.

“The solar array makes sense, but it seems real fuzzy,” she said. “Does it make sense centralized on rooftops? It seems the council is going for something because it seems the right and green way to go, but there is solar all over the desert that is ruining all kinds of habitat.”

City Administrator Kelly Madding said the city has done studies, including a biological study that identified the vulnerable species, and that its habitat and needs are featured in the request for proposals and would be evaluated by potential solar contractors.

Councilor Dennis Slattery said solar proponents are amenable to keeping the array below the Talent Irrigation Ditch, which is about a fourth of the way up the mountain.

Noting he is a member of SOLC, Slattery said that the two environmentally minded interests, solar and wildlife, “need to figure it out.”

“I am open to their (SOLC) wishes and desires on the property,” he said. “We want renewable energy, and it’s got to go somewhere. No place will be perfect.”

In the council deliberations, Slattery said, “We’re trying to decide, is the solar plant going to be a benefit or a cost to the city? There are people who are going to tell you that you should never build it, and others who say we should build it tomorrow. With the RFP, people will provide us with facts. If it’s going to be a (net) cost, that will be fairly obvious. For far too long, it’s been conjecture. We need facts.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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