Don Nelson sits in the kitchen of his home on Lowell Mountain, puffing on a pipe, looking bemused, while his wife, Shirley, answers a phone that seems to ring every two minutes. Outside, their dog, Barney, barks incessantly as a new group of visitors, one of many to come through that day, stops in to say hello, expresses support and asks for permission to hike up the mountain behind the house.
Ordinarily, the Nelsons’ life isn’t this crowded or chaotic. Over the years, the retired dairy farmers have allowed small groups of hikers, hunters and campers to use their property, a 600-acre spread overlooking a picture-perfect valley in the Northeast Kingdom. But in recent weeks, that trickle of visitors has grown to a steady stream, as more people have learned of the couple’s legal standoff with Green Mountain Power.
In May, GMP got permission to start construction on a 21-turbine, 63-megawatt wind farm that will overlook the Nelsons’ property. The $163 million Kingdom Community Wind project, as it’s called, received an overwhelming endorsement from three-quarters of Lowell voters. However, many people on the Nelsons’ side of the mountain oppose the project, calling it too large, destructive and out of character with Vermont’s environmental ethos.
In recent weeks, a group of protesters has maintained a round-the-clock encampment on the Nelsons’ land, just a stone’s throw from GMP’s blasting zone. Its members say they’re prepared to stay on the mountain all winter, if necessary, to prevent the project from moving forward.
Early last week, Mary Powell, GMP’s president and CEO, and Robert Dostis, GMP’s leader of external affairs and customer relations, invited the Nelsons to meet at a Stowe coffee shop to try to resolve their differences. Following the hourlong meeting, GMP offered to buy the Nelsons’ farm, which has been on the market for more than a decade, for the asking price of $1.25 million. Powell says she’s sure some Vermont farmers would “embrace” the idea of having wind turbines visible from their land.
But GMP’s carrot also came with a stick — a letter from GMP’s attorneys warning the couple that if they don’t keep campers out of the blasting zone, they could be held liable for as much as $1 million for “tortious interference” with the project. According to Powell, the Nelsons took GMP’s offer “under advisement” for 24 hours, then counteroffered with an even higher asking price of $2.25 million.
“If they’re gonna sue me for $1 million, I’m gonna add a million to the price tag,” Don Nelson explains. “It’s high-stakes poker, and I don’t intend to sell out to the enemy if I can help it.”
Late last week, GMP obtained a temporary restraining order from an Orleans County Superior Court judge requiring the Nelsons to keep campers at least 1000 feet away from the blasting zone for at least one hour before and after blasting is scheduled to occur. The Nelsons say the blasting constitutes “a trespass and a nuisance” and violates their property rights. They plan to be in court on Thursday to try to get the order revoked.
From Powell’s perspective, GMP “isn’t trying to be intimidating, but we do have an obligation to our customers and an obligation to state the brutal facts. And these are the brutal facts: We have permission on our project, and we have to make sure the area is safe when we get there.”
The strenuous climb up Lowell Mountain is a wet and muddy slog. After skirting the Nelsons’ pasture, an old logging road climbs steadily through the woods and becomes narrow, steep and slippery. Cairns and surveyor’s tape mark the entire route, as do the ankle-deep footprints of hikers who have come before.
On a recent afternoon, five hikers follow the trail upward to join the protesters at the top. The party includes Adrian Owens and Allison Van Akkeren, both teachers at Sterling College, and their 13-year-old son, Kestrel; Hannah Fleischmann, a 21-year-old senior at Sterling; and Alex Martin, 16, whose family has lived in the area for at least three generations. Everyone but Martin is visiting the encampment for the first time.
For Owens, who teaches outdoor education and leadership classes, this is hardly a first trek up Lowell Mountain. For years, the Nelsons have allowed Sterling College to use their land for winter survival classes.
Van Akkeren, who lives in nearby Craftsbury, says she’s not philosophically opposed to wind energy; in fact, her off-the-grid house is powered partly by wind. But she says this kind of ridgeline development doesn’t make sense in Vermont. Worse, she says, she’s put off by what she considers GMP’s heavy-handed approach to the Nelsons.
“For me, coming up here is connected to [Occupy] Wall Street,” she says, “the push to buy the Nelsons out, then threatening to sue. We need to stand against that.”
Her son, Kestrel, agrees. “It’s the big corporation pushing the little guy around.”
After a 40-minute climb that includes short hand-over-hand scrambles up muddy sections of slope, the group finally reaches the encampment. It’s a modest cluster of tents and tarps, with a small fire smoldering in a pit. The whine of a nearby chainsaw fills the air, not from the construction site but from a cluster of other tents farther uphill, where a trio of campers is building a winter shelter.
A few dozen yards away, a clear-cut swath of mountainside, largely obscured by fog, is marked off with orange construction tape and yellow warning signs. This is the boundary of GMP’s construction site. No logging or blasting is under way.
Though the protesters number fewer than a dozen, they claim they’ve had more than 20 visitors since morning. Nearly all sport name tags with monikers such as “Meadow Hawk,” “Condor” and “Toad.”
“Hop Hornbeam,” a thirtysomething activist who’s been staying on Lowell Mountain for several weeks, says each protester goes by the name of a different species “because the trees and animals can’t speak, so we give them a voice.”
Hornbeam, who’s originally from Illinois and attended Sterling College years ago, says he supports wind power but only in places where it leaves a small environmental footprint, such as on the Great Plains. “[Building on] ridgetops that don’t have roads doesn’t make any sense,” he says. Moreover, he’d prefer to see GMP spend its $163 million on energy-efficiency projects.
“I want to see our wild places stay wild,” he adds. “Just wait and see. When we get power hungry over the next 30 years, the places we’re going to turn to are the rural and wild areas.”
Steve Wright has been protecting wilderness for most of his 69 years. In the mid ’80s, the Macon, Ga., native served as fish and wildlife commissioner under Vermont Gov. Madeleine Kunin; in recent years he’s worked for the National Wildlife Federation. These days, physical ailments make it harder for Wright to hike, hunt and fish as much as he once did. Nevertheless, he still sports the grizzled look of a mountain man, with his checkered flannel shirt, disheveled beard and wire-rim glasses. He lives in a log cabin in Craftsbury.
Wright penned a September 29 op-ed in the New York Times titled “The Not-So-Green Mountains,” which was highly critical of GMP and the Lowell project. Wright’s major beef is his claim that, once GMP levels the ridgeline in order to build access roads to the turbine sites, it will fundamentally and irrevocably reorder the mountain’s hydrology, creating problems for landowners and municipalities for decades to come.
Currently, he explains, the mountain acts like a “huge sponge” to soak up rainfall and then filter the water through the trees, brush, soil and rock below it. But once GMP cuts its road up the ridgeline, “in places twice as wide as I-89, you’re just begging for problems.
“Any natural-resources professional will tell you that the best thing you can do about soil is keep it where it is,” Wright adds. “When it starts moving, we have real problems. Just look at central and southern Vermont right now.”
GMP’s Powell dismisses Wright’s concerns as unwarranted and overblown. She describes GMP’s environmental plan on this project, which includes conserving more than 2000 acres of wilderness for a 175-acre project, as “paradigm breaking.” Moreover, she says, whatever ecological harm occurs during construction will be short term and temporary, and fully remediated by the time the project is complete.
Not so, says Wright, who claims that the consequences of bulldozing the topsoil and blasting out the bedrock will be neither short term nor temporary.
“Trees grow back. Rocks don’t. Not in our lifetime,” he says. “This is 450 million years of geological movement ... And now we humans, operating under incredible hubris, are going to reorder it for maybe 50 years of [wind-turbine] operation. If there’s a crime against the landscape, I would contend this is one.”
Back at the Nelsons’ house, Shirley Nelson chats with an old friend from the area, who’s visited her land to scout for moose-hunting spots. Nelson says she’s seen a few come down off the mountain in recent days — spooked, she theorizes, by GMP’s twice-a-day blasting.
Asked if the protesters will make any difference, Nelson just shrugs and smiles.
“The mountains have a mystique all their own,” she says. If GMP goes ahead with what they started, she alleges, “Vermont will never be the same again.”