The Nature of Things: Trading birds for kilowatts

The Nature of Things: There's more than one kind of SPAM

There are a couple of things I thought I had in common with most all environmentalists: I love wildlife and I enjoy the beauty of nature. When it comes to wildlife, I have a special affinity for birds. I don't mean emus or peacocks, but mostly wild songbirds and just about every species from hummingbirds to condors. They all fit into various habitats and have a role to play, whether it is pollination, scavenging, or insect control.

The other thing I have always appreciated is the constantly changing beauty of the landscape. The common buzzword for this is "aesthetics." Many environmentalists are offended by certain manmade intrusions on the "view shed" by such unnatural blemishes as oil derricks and high tension power lines.

These same people dislike hydroelectric dams that interfere with free flowing rivers, they hate smokestacks from coal burning power plants, and are absolutely paranoid about nuclear power. So just where do they think we should turn to for our ever increasing demand for the energy to keep this country prosperous and livable?

Their answer is always the same: "Renewable energy from wind and the sun." And that is what this column is all about. I'm going to toss out solar energy simply because only about a third of the U. S. has enough sunshine to be a practical source of electricity.

That leaves us with wind power, which is all the rage with today's protectors of the planet. And how do you harness the power of the wind? Answer: by selecting a windswept ridge top or a gap between two mountains, where your hat will blow off, and erect a cluster of kilowatt producing windmills.

Are these wind farms practical and economical? They wouldn't be if they didn't receive huge tax breaks and government subsidies (just like many other unprofitable enterprises). But keep in mind the wind doesn't blow every day, just as the sun doesn't shine every day.

But that isn't my main problem with wind farms. They are bird killers! Let's look at one of the first and largest wind farms, the one at Altamont Hills in California. It was built in a windy gorge between two huge ridges. It is also an historic bird migration route. It's been confirmed that in the 20 years since it has operated, it has killed 22,000 birds. Most migrating birds fly at night and when there is a strong wind they fly low to the ground, so the whirling blades chop them up in such numbers that it should make nature lovers weep. Many of these birds are redtail hawks and golden eagles.

How did this project escape the rejection of an environmental impact study? There are those who knew that migrating birds used this same gap as a flyway. Why doesn't everyone have to play by the same rules? It if had been any other less than politically correct project, it would have been sued to death long ago.

And what about the aesthetics? I can't think of anything that looks more out of place in a natural landscape than hundreds of gigantic whirling blades which adulterate the natural scenery and distract one's vision from the road.

It's true that some of the latest technology on wind farms being build in Wyoming are using larger blades which turn more slowly, thus are less deadly to birds. But these monsters are even more unsightly than the smaller ones.

Getting closer to home, if anyone travels from Walla Walla to Wallula Gap in SE Washington, they will se a huge wind farm that dominates a ridge top for several miles on the south side of the highway. To my knowledge, there's never been a whimper against this project from the people who want every tree left standing and every river undammed, yet are willing to accept these manmade intrusions on nature.

What bothers me most is the mantra of the environmental movement, which is: "renewability" and "sustainability." If we continue to pave every windswept ridge and gorge in rural America with wind farms, we could lose the sustainability of many species of wild birds. We may even have to set aside "windmill free zones" in order to protect the scenery.

I don't have the up-to-date statistics, but we are trading thousands of wild birds for a very tiny percentage of the nation's energy production. And the very people who are suppose to be the protectors of wildlife are the one's promoting wind power. Where is the Audubon Society when we need them?

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