Nearly all species of North American birds are in decline. More bluntly, they are currently on the path to extinction. The litany of causes is familiar: habitat loss, housecats and other exotic predators, towerkill, the list goes on.
Our Appalachian highlands are under another, brand-new threat to our birds’ continued existence. If not challenged, all of the ridgetops in our formerly unbroken forests will very soon be covered in wind turbines, fragmenting the habitats of birds and bats and causing their deaths by collision.
At least four applications are currently under consideration for windmill installations, all on ridgetops in unfragmented forest in our area: (1) George Washington National Forest, 131 wind turbines on Shenandoah Mountain; (2) Randolph and Barbour Counties, 65 turbines on Laurel Mountain; (3) Garrett County, Maryland, 40 turbines on Backbone Mountain and (4) Mineral County, 30 turbines on Green Mountain. Another proposal to put 44 turbines on Jack Mountain in Pendleton County was rejected last year by the West Virginia Public Service Commission amid strong local opposition.
Anyone venturing near Mt. Storm recently has seen the installation now in progress of another 132 turbines in that area. How many of us knew in advance that they were going up?
Of course, Tucker County already has its 44 wind turbines. The line of windmills on Backbone Mountain has permanently altered our landscape. A study in 2003 found that more than 200 birds and 2,000 bats were killed by the turbines’ blades that year, and many believe that those numbers represent an undercount. That mortality is in addition to the loss of habitat on the Backbone Mountain ridge and the damage from forest fragmentation to migratory and breeding areas.
Wind power, in the abstract, is neither good nor bad: the problem is the siting. Recent projects in Denmark have found that large wind turbines placed in deep water in the North Sea have not caused a problem for the local seabirds. Researchers using heat-triggered cameras only recorded one collision with the 80 turbines over 2400 hours, and only fifteen instances of birds or bats coming near to the blades.
The current drive to site windmills on our local mountaintops is driven by federal tax credits. Without those tax credits, none of these projects would make a profit. The companies that are building the windmills are typically based elsewhere, with no ties to the communities whose landscapes the windmills would permanently affect. These companies have no incentive to apply proper siting criteria; they are only intent on erecting as many turbines as quickly as possible, before the tax credits run out.
The American Bird Conservancy has taken the position that no windmills should be approved without site analysis that includes bird and bat abundance, timing and magnitude of migration, and habitat use patterns. Besides mortality from collisions, the ABC also cites habitat fragmentation, disturbance and site avoidance as potential effects of windmills. The ABC states its preference for siting on areas with poor habitat.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service has proposed rules that would not even require an environmental impact statement for a windmill project.
We have a national treasure in the unfragmented forests of the central Appalachians. These unbroken forests are crucial to the survival of dozens, if not hundreds, of species of migratory birds. At a time when North American birds are suffering serious declines, it would be tragic to rush into a new, and permanent, way to kill more.
If we do nothing, we will also find that we ourselves have lost access to our ridgetops: they will have become private truck routes. Once the windmills are in, they will be there to stay. Now is the time to demand that sensible siting criteria be applied to windmills in the Appalachians: it will soon be too late.
By Casey Rucker
Ms. Rucker leads bird walks at Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Canaan Valley Resort State Park, and Cathedral State Park, as well as the coming Second Annual Boreal Bird Festival in Canaan Valley. She also serves on the WV State Bird Records Committee. She lives in Dry Fork, West Virginia.
4 June 2008
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