Vermont is currently being invaded by an insidiously destructive development that could change the rugged hills irrevocably: the arrival of Big Wind.
But wait, you might say.
Wind? No carbon dioxide is produced. Environmental activist Bill McKibben supports it. Isn’t wind environmentally good?
* * *
Big Wind has already been running over communities in much the same way in which the coal industry rolled over small communities as they flattened mountaintops across Kentucky and West Virginia.
I saw that destruction in the early 1970s. Big Coal stripped the mountains of their trees, flattened the tops, and gouged coal out of the ground without regard to the communities and rural people they were destroying in their wake.
Now, in the Northeast Kingdom and in southern Vermont, we see the same sort of behavior.
Wind towers have been approved without much public input to replace the current wind project in Searsburg. The present towers have been there for a number of years and are not overly imposing.
The new towers will be nearly twice as tall. They will be right on the edge of the George D. Aiken Wilderness, which will now be blessed with 24 hours of flashing lights and the subliminal hum of electric generation.
I am not objecting to the aesthetics of wind – I actually like the wind farm in Searsburg. I am concerned mostly with the fragility of this habitat, specifically in light of how important it is to certain bird species.
All these ridges run north to south. They are in the flight line of migrating birds, which use the uplift of the ridges to help their transit. The lights on the turbines will confuse night-flying passerines, many of which will fly into the huge blades.
Think chipmunks thrown into your window fan. Thousands will die.
* * *
I have seen wind farms in Spain and Rimouski on the Gaspé. They are at sea level at a location that makes sense to me. They are not on pristine mountaintops. (The only place wind belongs in Vermont is the Burlington waterfront. I attended UVM and recall that the wind blew constantly off the lake. Wouldn’t the wind towers be picturesque on the lakeside?)
Our mountaintops, on the other hand, have finally recovered from the early 1800s, when they were cut off by settlers and loggers, then finally shorn by sheep until the land was too poor to support them anymore. These tracts flooded regularly.
The forests have grown back after 150 years of neglect. Now Big Wind wants to do 10 times as much damage by leveling the tops into parking lots on which to site huge towers, basically creating a four-lane highway in the process.
Our fragile land has been building precious soil since the last glaciation. Only special species can survive here. When you walk these ridge lines, you get a sense of slow-moving time, of hardy plants that can survive ice, snow, wind, and searing sunshine.
These are places where the Swainson’s thrush sings in June along with magnolia, blackpoll, Canada, and yellowrump warblers. These small birds are in decline already. Roads into this forest allow the cowbird to come in – a species that creates havoc.
Big Wind says 200 miles of ridge line is needed to make wind in Vermont viable. That’s the distance from Greenfield, Mass. to Newport, Vt.
These huge companies that don’t give a damn about renewable energy. Their aim is profit and total control of the electric grid. With nuclear going down, coal looking evil, and petroleum in question, wind on a big scale is one place they can still control the flow of energy and the profits from it.
Our high ridges are Vermont’s coral reefs. When they have been destroyed by a bulldozer, it will take 10,000 years for them to recover.
* * *
I have spent a great deal of time on the border region between Haiti and the Dominican Republic chasing rare birds. These mountains in the Baoruco rise to 8,000 feet. On one side there are no trees. On the other, there is a high-altitude forest of pine and broadleaf trees with moss and bromeliads in profusion.
When the hurricanes hit this island, water sheds off the Haitian range in torrents, uncontrolled by anything to slow it. Topsoil heads for the ocean, along with people and their belongings. Most do not survive the trip.
On the Dominican side, the thick forest slows the rush of water and soaks up much of it. The wind is tempered by the trees. Yes, there are floods and deaths, but to a much lower degree.
One would imagine that those who lived through Tropical Storm Irene and had to deal with the cleanup would be aware of the value of keeping as much untouched forest as possible at high altitudes to mitigate the flooding from these storms.
Take a careful look, Vermont. Once our mountaintops – our coral reefs – are gone, they will be lost forever.
Richard Foye grew up on a 3,000-acre sanctuary of the Massachusetts Audubon Society in the 1950s and ’60s and has been a bird enthusiast for 60-plus years.