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Wind power, habitat fragmentation and the promise of work

If you travel I-68 and any of the joining roads in the near future, you will almost certainly see creeping flat beds hauling gargantuan turbines, blades and other pieces of future wind towersup the mountain to join those already adorning the Western MD/PA ridgelines.

One or two car escorts follow close behind in the far right lanes. Some of the pieces are so large that you have to pull halfway in to the adjacent lane to avoid them. Despite your feelings about wind towers, you just can’t avoid feeling awe at their sheer size.

I’ve watched wind towers sprout up rapidly in this area over the past four years, reading letters to the editor each week about the latest issue with one of the wind farm companies: permits, payoffs, noise and most often, aesthetics. I’ve been reading a lot more on the subject during the move, published an article over the summer regarding one community’s problem with the wind towers and have been biting at the bit to expand on it a little.

This was presented as a miracle fix all for the area, with big name companies riding the wave of the public’s renewed vigor and faith in environmentalism. But I can understand why the public is so damn upset.

It’s funny. I’ve talked to a few of the company owners and researchers in the area who are trying to make these projects possible, and I’ll have to say, the locals have a point. I’m not exactly thrilled with the vehement rejection of a potentially renewable resource, but their call for more research and less BS is needed.

For example, a particular wind turbine company in the area has been claiming that they will only place towers on reclaimed strip mines in Western Maryland, reusing land stripped of resources. It sounds like a good idea, turning an abused piece of land into something productive and supposedly environmentally friendly. But that’s not the whole truth, and it’s not just about the deaths of migrating birds and bats. It’s about habitat fragmentation and the effects these windmills, and indeed any major development, will have on forested lands.

I first talked to a marketing guy from one of these companies four years ago, and then just this past year, as towers cropped up everywhere around us except on the strip mined land.

It’s not to say that the mountains and ridges around Meyersdale and other areas are pristine forest; it’s all been logged or mined at some point, but there is enough forest to house the wildlife, giving them uninterrupted corridors for territorial requirements. But even if the farm would be built on a recently reclaimed piece of land, where most of the species of plants are placed there because of rapid growth potential (like the Japanese Larch and the Scots Pine; some reclaimed areas in the PA/MD/WV Appalachians are planted with red pine, which is native), there’s still a problem.

These mines are often automatically reforested to reduce the amount of runoff from the loose, homogenized soil. Certain species that move into these areas while they function as a grassland habitat, specifically birds of prey like the northern harrier and the short-eared owl. One of two things happen at this point: The trees are left alone to reproduce rapidly and turn the temporary grassland into a fully forested area, or some sort of development begins on the “resource depleted” land. If the former happens, the forest is somewhat repaired, patching, to an extent, the fragmented landscape, though the grassland animals taking refuge will eventually have to move on. If the latter happens, such as wind farm construction, wildlife of any kind will have a far more difficult time existing in the specific area as well as passing through the developed area into a more suitable habitat.

So the win-win situation presented by these eager wind power companies is hardly convincing.

And eager they are. All of the gentlemen I have talked to boast about the future of wind power, how it will uplift the economically depressed Appalachians by creating factory jobs. They gave long, impassioned speeches, canned just for media.

I’m not holding my breath to be honest. It’s going to take a lot more than a few windmills to bolster the flagging economy here.

This whole situation makes me want to go back to school and start researching edge effects and habitat frag in this area as a result of wind farm construction. There’s plenty of opportunity to have a prolonged study of before, during and after the construction. It has been studied in different areas before, but this has been such a rapid expansion, I’d be curious to see just how severe the fragmentation is.

For now, however, I keep a close eye on any developments, one of which I want to talk about tomorrow.

by Jeremy Bruno

The Voltage Gate

10 December 2007