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By Steve Kiggins - May 2, 2023

When it was Idaho Sen. Jim Risch’s turn to address Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on Tuesday during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, he raised a singular talking point.

“I’m going to focus on one thing today. One thing, and one thing only: The Lava Ridge Wind Turbine Project in Idaho,” Risch said.

He found himself in a mostly one-sided conversation, however, with Haaland seemingly unprepared to answer questions about the scope of a project that, if approved, would place up to 400 turbines across nearly 230 square miles of public lands in Jerome, Lincoln and Minidoka counties, and she was equally unaware of the near-total opposition in Idaho and across the Magic Valley.

The tense exchange, which lasted about seven minutes, ended with Risch informing Haaland of her own resource advisory committee’s unanimous recommendation against a project that has also garnered opposition from Idaho’s federal delegation, Gov. Brad Little, Attorney General Raul Labrador, the Idaho Legislature, the state Republican and Democratic parties, and multiple county commissions in south-central Idaho.

“I was disappointed the Secretary still couldn’t provide reasonable information about this project her agency is responsible for permitting, especially given the entire Idaho delegation has raised this issue multiple times,” Risch told the Times-News in a statement via email. “There is near unanimous opposition to this project, and it’s astounding that she doesn’t seem to understand even basic information about the communities that it would impact.”

Less than 100 seconds into their exchange, after Haaland read from a prepared statement about the Bureau of Land Management’s coordination efforts with state and local stakeholders, Risch asked, “That’s great. What did you find out, with all of this coordination and discussion and meetings?”

“We’re going to continue to engage …” Haaland answered, stumbling multiple times over her words.

“No, no. What did you find out?”

“Well, I think the conversations are ongoing, senator.”

“Well, what did you find out so far? Nothing?”

When Haaland again responded with the same answer, Risch cut her off and again asked, “What did you find out so far?”

“I don’t have a complete readout of all of the meetings.”

“Give me an incomplete readout. What did you find out so far?”

“Well, I think they’re gaining insight into how the community feels and what they have to say.”

It was then that Risch summarized the project, including the proposed acreage and size of the turbines, he asked aides to pass a photo to Haaland that showed a rendering of what the Lava Ridge project would look like from the Minidoka National Historic Site and then repeatedly pushed her to share her vision for public lands.

“Look at the horizon. Is that your vision for what public lands should look like?” the Republican senator asked.

“Senator, I think there’s a lot of visions for public lands across the country.”

“Nah, no, no, no, no. Don’t give me that.”

“Is that your vision for what public lands should look like in America?”

“Senator, we have millions of acres of public lands all over the country and they all look different.”

“Do you like that?” Risch asked, motioning to the rendering.

“Senator, I understand what you’re saying. I want you to know that we care deeply — we listen to people, we get their input,” Haaland responded.

“I’m glad you’re listening to people, because let me tell you who you should be listening to,” Risch said. “First of all, you have a resource advisory council … do you know what they’ve said about this?

Following a few moments of silence, Risch spoke again, “Your council. You know what they said, unanimously, about this?”

“Please tell me, senator,” Haaland answered.

“Don’t do it!” he said in a raised voice.

The 90-day public comment period for the Lava Ridge draft environment impact statement ended last month and the BLM is in the process of reviewing, cataloging and recording thousands of comments.

A timeline for any decision on the future of the project is unknown.