MCHENRY -- An overflow crowd of about 500 people packed a public hearing in Western Maryland last night, most of them strongly opposed to a proposal to allow wind turbines in state forests.
"It's the very character of the mountains and the state forests that define who we are," said state Del. Wendell R. Beitzel, a Republican from Garrett County. "I beseech you to relay to the governor and other people that we don't want wind turbines on our land."
Pennsylvania-based U.S. Wind Force is proposing to build about 100 turbines in the Savage River and Potomac state forests in Garrett County.
The company wants leases from the state that would allow the construction of 400-foot-tall windmills on top of ridges that would be visible from Western Maryland's biggest tourist attractions, including Deep Creek Lake and the Savage River Reservoir.
The terms of leases would have to be negotiated but could include payments to the state of about $1 million a year for 20 years.
Advocates say the wind farms would generate pollution-free electricity that could help combat global warming. The turbines could provide power for tens of thousands of homes when combined with backup generation from plants using natural gas.
Frank Maisano, a spokesman for the wind developers, was whistled at and shouted down when he defended the idea of generating electricity in state forests.
"This is not only about Garrett County. It's about Maryland, our country and the world. It's about our future," Maisano said. "We need more and cleaner energy from wind."
"Time's up," people in the crowd yelled.
"As residents of Maryland, these public lands belong to all of us," Maisano continued calmly. "They are as much the lands of Cecil and Wicomico counties as everyone else."
"Build them there," someone yelled.
"Wind power will provide the cleanest, most reliable energy for our region," Maisano said
"How much money did you get paid to come up here to speak today?" demanded Jeff Conner, a Garrett County resident.
As the hearing started, 45 people had signed up to testify against putting turbines on public lands and 14 had signed up to support the idea.
Only one of the first 15 members of the public to speak last night favored the proposal. William E. Llewellyn, an engineer, said the opposition to the turbines was ill-informed.
"What better place than lands owned by the general public to generate electricity used by the general public?" he asked.
Critics say that allowing the clearing of 400 acres of state forests for an industrial purpose would set a precedent that could allow other exploitation of state wild lands.
The relatively small amount of intermittent electricity produced by the turbines wouldn't justify the harm to the mountainous landscape of Western Maryland, they say.
"What calculus of economic benefits can possibly justify destroying our public land forever?" asked John N. Bambacus, a former state senator from Frostburg. "After the useful life of these 400-foot monstrosities, what happens? Will they be here forever, as a horrible testament to Maryland's once-renowned national reputation for environmental stewardship?"
Three companies have received full or partial approval from Maryland to put wind farms on private land in Garrett County, but none has been built.
Boosted by federal tax credits, more than 25,000 wind turbines have been built nationwide, including 3,000 in the past year. Wind farms have sprung up in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Before Maryland decides whether to negotiate with U.S. Wind Force, the Department of Natural Resources has to create a general policy on whether to allow turbines on state lands. That policy was the point of last night's hearing.
John R. Griffin, the state's secretary of natural resources, said the administration hasn't decided on the policy question and welcomes the public input. "
"Can the important goal of generating clean energy be reconciled with the equally important goal of preserving our state forests?" Griffin asked.
A second hearing will be held at 6:30 p.m. today at the Arundel Center, 44 Calvert St. in Annapolis.