The wind project is planned for a mountaintop in the southern Adirondacks owned by the Barton Mines Co., a five-generation family business that has mined garnets for industrial use since 1878. Barton’s partner is Reunion Power, a company based in Vermont that has carved out a niche in crossing state lines, to develop and manage such sites in New York. Reunion is developing two other projects in Otsego County, N.Y., and is operating a project in Minnesota.
It may be a year before Barton and Reunion Power submit a proposal for the wind project to the Adirondack Park Agency, the state board responsible for approving development projects inside the 6-million-acre park that contains the Adirondack range.
But the dispute has heated up, as environmentalists debate the intent of the park’s founders, the need to develop clean energy, and the fate of a rare bird that may exist in the climate of Barton’s mountaintop site.
The Adirondack Council, a prominent environmental advocacy group, opposes the project for several reasons, including its fear that the wind towers’ blades might kill birds and bats. But the main objection centers on the Adirondack Park’s tradition of protecting its scenic views.
Aesthetics have entered into the debate on other wind turbine projects. A proposal to build turbines in Nantucket Sound, off Cape Cod, has generated only a bitter controversy.
In New York, Barton says that the 10-turbine, $40 million project – with the stationary portion of the turbines standing nearly 280 feet, and more than 400 feet when the blades are fully extended – would barely be visible from surrounding roads and hiking areas. The Adirondack Council vehemently disputes this.
John Sheehan, a spokesman for the Adirondack Council, said that if one wind energy project is admitted to the park, it will open the door to others. ”In this case, the cost of developing wind power would be too high to justify on any scale except Barton/Reunion’s financial calculations. If it is approved, it won’t be the last one in the Adirondacks."
But James McAndrew, a Barton vice president, says the site – on about 500 acres spanning a mountaintop and some surrounding ridges – is the only place in the Adirondacks with enough wind and a remote enough location for wind turbines.
Adding to the advantages of what McAndrew calls a unique site is the company’s need to diversify, as the garnet-mining business in the United States faces competition from cheap imports. The project would be built on a portion of Barton property that was depleted of garnet deposits more than 20 years ago.
If approved, the Barton project would join a half-dozen other large wind turbine projects that are already operating around New York state.
”Here’s a chance to bring an industry to the park that supports jobs and economic development and the viability of people living here," McAndrew said. ”The argument that’s usually made by people who oppose them [the turbines] is, ‘This place is special.’ But ‘this place’ is every place."
Barton started mining on the site in 1878. ”The [Barton] company’s been here longer than any of the residents," McAndrew said. ”We’re a big part of town. This site has been mined out since 1983. We’re not talking about chopping up wilderness here."
It may not be wilderness, but bird lovers say the Barton mountaintop could well be a nesting place for the Bicknell’s thrush.
That species is a songbird that lives in the high altitudes of the Adirondacks and that is designated by the state of New York as a species of ”special concern," said Michael Burger, an ornithologist and a director of bird conservation for Audubon New York.
The ”special concern" designation is less dire than ”endangered," but it is watched closely in the case of the Bicknell’s thrush because the bird has such a limited range, Burger said.
No one seems to know for sure if the Bicknell’s thrush has found some of its habitat on the Barton windmill site.
Given the complexity of the wind turbine project, no one is expecting a swift resolution. McAndrew has voiced optimism about the project’s approval, but Barton and Reunion cannot submit their proposal until they finish collecting weather data at the site.
Barton has lined up some prominent champions, including the Warren County Board of Supervisors, which represents the government heads of a dozen municipalities, and Bill McKibben, a former staff writer for The New Yorker who has lived in Johnsburg for many years.
The Barton turbine project would produce enough power to supply 14,000 households in a year, and McKibben said he realizes this project alone won’t address the country’s critical need for clean energy.
But change comes from many small efforts, McKibben said.
He worries more about acid rain from Midwestern industrial pollution – which has turned some Adirondacks lakes into dead zones, devoid of fish and plant life – than he worries about the aesthetics of a view.
”It’s a very hard call for everyone, and I understand that," McKibben said.
”But," he added, ”I’ve spent my career worrying more about global warming, so I tilt hard in the direction of trying to address that."