Gov. Martin O'Malley plans to announce today that his administration will prohibit the construction of wind turbines in Maryland's state forests and parks, according to administration sources.
The decision ends a hotly protested proposal by a Pennsylvania company to clear about 400 mountaintop acres in two Western Maryland state forests to build 100 wind turbines.
O'Malley is scheduled to announce his decision this morning atop a scenic mountain overlook in Savage River State Forest that would have been altered by 40-story windmills.
U.S. Wind Force's proposal to lease state land in the Savage River and Potomac state forests was strongly opposed by Garrett County elected officials and citizens, who feared the industrialization of Western Maryland's scenic views.
"Wind turbines on state land would have absolutely destroyed for generations to come the pristine nature of our state forests," said John N. Bambacus, a former mayor of Frostburg and Republican state senator who led the fight against the turbines. "It's great news, and it's truly an indication that the governor is listening to the people up here."
The idea of leasing state forests for turbines as tall as the Statue of Liberty was also opposed by some environmentalists, who did not want private construction on public land.
But climate change activists argued that the state should allow the turbines in order to help fight global warming.
O'Malley listened to both sides but finally sided with preserving open space. "The governor feels very strongly that ... we need to protect our conservation lands because we hold them in trust for future generations," said one administration source.
Maryland has no wind farms today. Officials said O'Malley supports the construction of wind turbines on private land. Four companies are proposing to build windmills on privately owned farms in Western Maryland or in the Atlantic Ocean east of Ocean City. These proposals are moving forward or under discussion.
An administration bill passed during the recent General Assembly session gives a boost to the wind industry by requiring power companies to buy 20 percent of their electricity from alternative energy sources by 2022.
State residents expressed strong opposition to allowing turbines in state forests during a pair of public hearings in January in Western Maryland and Annapolis.
Of the 124 people who spoke at the hearings, 86 percent said turbines should not be built in state forests or parks, according to state records.
And it wasn't just Western Marylanders opposed to windmills in their backyards. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources received 1,312 e-mails and letters from all over the state, and 83 percent of the senders were opposed to turbines in state forests.
Frank Maisano, a spokesman for U.S. Wind Force and other wind developers, said he's disappointed. He said Maryland is falling behind Pennsylvania and West Virginia, which have wind farms.
"Maryland remains tied for last in the nation among wind development with zero, while our neighbors across the Mason-Dixon line and the Potomac River move forward with numerous projects," Maisano said.
Thirty-four states have wind farms, led by Texas and California. Those with none include Delaware and Virginia.
Cindy Schwartz, director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, said the decision by O'Malley, a Democrat, to protect state forests from development is a "huge contrast" with former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican.
"The governor has made a commitment to preserving open spaces," Schwartz said of O'Malley. "When Ehrlich was governor, they were trying to sell off public lands, and here we have a governor who is not only fully funding Program Open Space but preserving state lands for wildlife."
Program Open Space is part of a state law, passed in 1969, that diverts a portion of state real estate transfer taxes to buying up forests and fields to protect them from development.
Administration officials said O'Malley is expected to talk about his record on preserving open space and paying for improvements to state parks during his speech today at the Savage River State Forest. He's likely to highlight an additional $4 million he budgeted in November to improve park maintenance and hire more employees to care for state lands.
Past administrations have frequently taken money from open-space programs to balance the state budget, especially during hard economic times.
A philosophy of fighting for wild places influenced O'Malley's decision about the wind farms, administration sources said.
On the other side, the wind industry - represented by former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., now a lobbyist - was pushing the administration for leases of state land, arguing that wind turbines could improve air quality and help prevent future electricity shortages.
And the Chesapeake Climate Action Network pointed out that Maryland has allowed another commercial activity, logging, in the state forests. They argued that it would be worthwhile to encourage wind energy to produce electricity without burning coal, which creates greenhouse gases.
U.S. Wind Force, which is based outside Pittsburgh, started talking to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources about leasing land in the two state forests about two years ago.
The company signed an agreement with a large California utility and has been discussing building a total of five wind farms in Western Maryland, including three on private land.