Some of the turbines of the 200- megawatt project could be within two miles of the border of the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, a refuge that was named by the National Wildlife Refuge Association as one of the nation's six most threatened refuges.
HORICON – Late on a fall afternoon, with thousands of Canada geese on the wing and clouds piled up on the horizon, Horicon Marsh is about as timeless a place as one can imagine.
In the empty distances, the wind, the light and the sounds of the birds overhead, one can escape all that is modern and pressing and leave the ring of cell phones and the flash of computer screens, returning for a moment to something ancient and changeless.
Harold Steinback, a nearby resident and a volunteer with the Friends of Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, knows well the feeling. He’s retired and spends hours at the marsh mowing and greeting people at the visitor center. He can tell you about the marsh and its history, give you details on the number of bird species, teach you how to discern between a heron and a crane when they are in flight.
But Steinback is no more enthusiastic than when he is talking about the emptiness of the place and its far horizons. He finds something there, he said, that he finds nowhere else.
"It is," he said, "a vital part of my life."
This all helps explain why Steinback was so disappointed when, once again, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission recently refused to halt a proposal to build the state’s largest wind farm on the edges of Horicon Marsh.
The commission voted against granting a second hearing to opponents of a plan by a company called Forward Energy to erect 133 wind turbines, each 390 feet high from their base to the tip of their blades, on 32,400 acres of land rented from farmers around the marsh.
Some of the turbines of the 200- megawatt project could be within two miles of the border of the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, a refuge that was named by the National Wildlife Refuge Association as one of the nation’s six most threatened refuges.
Supporters of the project describe it as an important step toward assuring alternative energy a place in the state. Among the more vocal is Michael Vickerman, with RENEW Wisconsin, a nonprofit group that works toward sustainable energy in the state.
"We cannot afford," said Vickerman, "to delay the installation of locally viable and environmentally responsible renewable power sources – whether from wind, solar, small scale hydro, wood, or livestock manure.
"The Forward project would be built in the state’s most productive location for large-scale wind development. From an environmental, economic, and energy security perspective, large- scale wind is vastly preferable to fossil-fuel generation, and the PSC’s decision underscores this emerging reality."
Opponents, however, fear the installation will be deadly to the hundreds of thousands of birds that come and go from the refuge every year, especially during migrations in the spring and the fall. They also charge the fields of turbines will forever diminish the appearance of the vast and open marshy landscape.
So staunch is the opposition that officials with one of the primary groups fighting the project, Horicon Marsh System Advocates, wasted little time in promising an appeal in Wisconsin courts of the recent decision. And there will be further legal challenges if necessary, said Joe Breaden, president of the group.
"We’re going to take every legal avenue there is," said Breaden.
The issue is a difficult one for environmental groups such as the Madison Audubon Society, which have long advocated for cleaner energy alternatives such as wind. Karen Etter Hale, executive secretary of the Madison Audubon Society, and second vice president of the Wisconsin Audubon Council, said she has worked for years on behalf of cleaner alternative energy sources.
Etter Hale said she still favors wind energy, and even this particular project if it were moved away from the marsh. She has also called for phasing the project in to allow for studies on the impact on birds before building those towers that are closer, some within two miles, of the marsh boundaries.
Forward Energy, a subsidiary of a company called Invenergy Wind that operates 25 wind projects across the United States and Canada, conducted a study called an avian risk assessment at the marsh. The study found "the projected number of waterfowl fatalities is a tiny fraction of annual waterfowl harvests and is not likely to be biologically significant."
"Wind power skeptics and critics often claim that wind turbines will kill many birds," the company says in its literature. "In fact, wind power is one of the most environmentally friendly energy sources used. Even the most dramatic estimates produced by opponents show that bird deaths from wind power are a small fraction of the deaths caused by buildings, vehicles, cats and pesticides."
But even the PSC was skeptical enough to order further studies, some of which continue even as the agency allows the project to move forward. In its initial approval of the project, the agency cited other studies around the country that have shown annual avian mortality at other operating wind farms to range from less than one bird per turbine to eight birds per turbine.
Even so, the PSC also noted in its report that Horicon Marsh presents a much different scenario than is found with most other wind projects because of the great numbers of birds that frequent the area. And the agency found fault with Forward’s initial bird studies for missing the peak migration times of specific bird groups and not considering the impacts to rare birds such as whooping cranes.
So the PSC ordered more studies. Among the studies it ordered are "post-construction" studies, an order that caused Breaden and other opponents to scratch their heads.
"It’s sort of like ordering a post- mortality study after you’ve already been killed in a car crash," Breaden said.
In the end, it seemed, the PSC decided too little data exists to make a firm decision on the impact on bird populations. Officials with the agency admitted that questions remain about how birds will be affected.
"There are some uncertainties," said Bob Norcross, administrator of the agency’s gas and electric division. "These wind towers are developing technology."
Then, opponents ask, why not wait or put the project elsewhere? Norcross said the project is proposed for construction atop a geologic formation known as the Niagara escarpment, a unique upland area with a short steep descent on one side and a long, gentle slope on the other. The land form creates one of the most conducive spots for capturing wind anywhere in the state, according to Forward officials and the PSC.
Proponents of the project, including officials with Forward Energy, argue that benefits far outweigh the risks. The project will provide 250 construction jobs in the short term and 10 full-time jobs once it is running.
It will provide benefits to local communities because of a state formula that divides revenue for alternative energy projects between counties and towns – in this case up to a total of $800,000 if the project reaches its projected capacity of 200 megawatts.
And, according to the PSC, the project will provide clean energy, enough electricity to serve about 72,000 households. A coal-fired plant producing the same amount of energy would emit about 700,000 tons of carbon dioxide, 240 tons of nitrogen oxide and 340 tons of sulfur dioxide every year, the agency said.
But opponents such as Etter Hale ask whether the potential threat to birds, including rare birds, and the loss of the marsh’s open horizons would be worth even these benefits. She worked at the marsh for a number of years and will never forget its stirring emptiness.
"Each time I come upon that view of that vast expanse of marsh, it catches at my heart," Etter Hale said. "There is nothing to compare to being there at sunset and watching until it’s so dark you can only hear the birds overhead."
Steinback also appreciates the view, unobstructed to the horizons, and said it is a big part of what makes the marsh such a unique place.
"If you’ve seen any concentration of these towers anywhere else," Steinback said, "these things are giants compared to anything else on the landscape. It’s going to ruin this landscape. . . . Millions of people a year visit this marsh. Are they coming to see wind towers?"
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