The recent debate on the potential leasing of state park land to U.S. Wind Force has focused primarily on the merits of wind energy with the inclusion of some ad hominem commentary. A topic which has not yet been satisfactorily addressed in these pages is the nature of leasing public lands for private development. This letter is intended to begin to address this issue.
In the state of Maryland the Department of Natural Resources “preserves, protects, enhances and restores Maryland’s natural resources for the wise use and enjoyment of all citizens.” With less than 6 percent of the state’s area designated as state park land, citizens already have limited access to wild open spaces in which to hunt, fish and hike. The commercial development of state parks further limits the space available for these important forms of recreation.
There are several ways in which such large scale development will alter the nature of the wild lands that are open to us all. The first of these is roads. U.S. Wind Force has proposed using existing logging roads for its wind farm construction. Sadly, existing logging roads are unlikely to be sufficient for this purpose.
The Forestry Commission of the United Kingdom reports of one wind farm’s access roads constructed on largely level ground. These roads were required to be 16 feet wide, with a minimum curve radius more than 5 football fields and able to support 15 ton axle loads. Such dimensions are required to accommodate trucks carrying shaft segments which are 60-80 feet long and rotor blades which are 140 feet long in addition to the enormous crane required for their assembly.
In Western Maryland’s mountainous state forests, such roads would require numerous switchbacks and significant cuts and fill to create a level roadbed.
Road construction also has long-term effects on the ecosystem and wildlife habitat. A New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets study documents the effects of soil compaction, topsoil loss and poor drainage from wind farm development.
After two years there was little vegetation beyond small grassy weeds. These are hardly healthy living arrangements for the deer, black bear and wild turkeys which roam our forests and meadows.
Second, poor plant re-growth, soil compaction and impermeable surfaces also lead to increased erosion which is particularly problematic on steep mountain slopes. Runoff courses down slopes, stripping more soil with it and running into mountain streams. In the case of Savage River Forest and Potomac State Forest, runoff would run into the Savage River Watershed and the headwaters of the Potomac itself with silt build-up affecting all aquatic life.
To mitigate the effects of erosion, the American Wind Energy Association recommends that “landscaping techniques” be employed. Such techniques include concrete retaining walls and artificial culverts in our state forests.
Thirdly, politics can become a barrier to access for citizens. Puget Sound Energy (PSE) prohibited public use of a long-used and previously public road on the pretext of security threats. Consequently, citizens can no longer reach their properties and cabins beyond the construction site.
Despite all parties’ best intentions, it is inconceivable that an industrial wind farm will meet the standard of “leave no trace” practices which all responsible nature lovers employ. In fact, an industrial energy complex with the concomitant power substation and transmission wires will be an irremediable blight on lands which have been preserved by public will and public funds.
In working to solve our geo-political energy crisis, we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Therefore, as this discussion proceeds it would be wise to consider a variety of frames of reference to guide the inquiry. One useful perspective is the smart growth model, i.e., concentrating development in already developed areas. The collaborative development of a regional plan will help landowners, conservationists and municipalities work with wind energy developers in a way that protects and preserves open and wild space.
Most importantly, public lands should be kept public. Public lands are intended for public use. Private construction projects on public lands neither preserve, protect, enhance nor restore natural resources. In fact, such activity is likely to achieve the exact opposite and will strip Marylanders of their most precious natural resource: nature itself.
12 January 2008
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