Windmill farms are industrial development

Martha Frey, executive director of Otsego (N.Y.) 2000
Originally published in The Freeman's Journal, November 10, 2006

A house divided against itself cannot stand. --Abraham Lincoln, June 1858

When Abraham Lincoln spoke those words, he was referring to the growing divide between the North and South prior to the Civil War. At the time, his words were viewed as a radical statement, defining a politically charged period in our nation's history.

Today this same phrase could be used to describe the current cleavage in the environmental community.

As concerns grow over our dependence on fossil fuels, energy policies, or the lack thereof, powering the country has become front-page news.

Environmental groups that once stood together on so many issues are now taking sides on what are the most viable energy options.

This is particularly the case when it comes to wind power. And that's unfortunate.

At issue is what constitutes the environment and, to some extent, where lies the greater good. The claim that wind power achieves a nobler environmental agenda only adds fuel to a fire that shouldn't be burning.

Environmental groups like Environmental Advocates of New York and Clearwater, a Hudson Valley–based organization, have both made tremendous contributions to protection of the environment. Indeed, they made environmental history in New York State by their steadfast support for responsible environmental laws.

That's why we're so troubled that these same groups are taking a blind stand to support wind power in the Otsego Lake region.

Though wind power may be part of the mix of solutions we need to halt global warming, it is by no means a major part of those solutions, so trade-offs can be made with other environmental considerations. With little knowledge of the threats to environmental resources in our region, these groups have weighed in supporting wind power projects, the largest projects to date proposed for Central New York.

If we compartmentalize the environment, picking and choosing what we feel is significant to protect, we do a disservice not only to the environment, but also to the very foundation of environmental law in New York State, namely the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

The origins of this law, which seeks to protect a wide range of environmental resources, date back in part to a battle to protect Storm King Mountain, a significant landscape feature in the Hudson River Valley. Storm King was threatened by a hydropower project, a renewable energy project that nevertheless was determined to have significant aesthetic and ecological impacts.

In a landmark settlement between the plant's owners, environmental groups, and regulators, the worst impacts to Storm King and of at least six other power plants were mitigated.

More recently, the historic view from Olana, a National Historic Landmark outside of Hudson, was threatened by the proposed expansion of the St. Lawrence Cement Plant. While there were other environmental issues involved, most environmentalists would agree that protection of Olana's views and the overall visual impacts of this project to the historic Hudson River Valley were critical.

One of the most egregious elements in the St. Lawrence Cement Plant proposal was a 400-foot smokestack, a significant intrusion on a landscape that inspired the Hudson River Valley School of painting, and particularly the artist Fredrick Church, who made Olana his home.

So, how is the case to protect Olana any different than protecting the scenic and historic resources in our region? Is it a stretch to say that 75 400-foot-tall wind turbines would significantly alter the Glimmerglass Historic District, the landscape that inspired James Fenimore Cooper and the awakening of America's environmental consciousness?

And what of East Hill in Cherry Valley, now part of the Route 20 Scenic Byway Corridor and well within view of the Lindesay Patent Historic District, one of the largest rural historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Reunion Power would like to construct up to 24 turbines there, each towering over 400 feet.

Is East Hill any less worthy of protection? Like the Jordanville Project, East Hill is highly visible from the Mohawk Valley and, on a clear day, the southern Adirondack Park.

Does the environmental community really want to play musical chairs with registered historic or scenic resources that receive a measure of protection under state and federal laws? It's a dangerous game to partake in, and one that could ultimately erode the validity of the environmental movement and hard-won legislation that protects all environmental resources.

Let's not conveniently decide whether scenic and historic resources are part of the environment -- they are!

And let's not be fooled by claims that wind power projects are more benign than other industrial developments. Most large-scale wind power projects are Type 1 Actions under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. Type 1 Actions are apt to have more significant environmental impacts; therefore they are subject to Draft Impact Statements that detail significant environmental impacts and appropriate mitigation.

Appropriate mitigation can in some cases include downsizing or relocating a project. Significant environmental impacts can also result in denial of a project. This is particularly true if a project has no reasonable mitigation options.

One thing is clear: The environmental community must view wind power projects as they would any other type of industrial development.

To prejudge wind power projects, and indeed to blindly support them regardless of the environmental consequences, is just wrong. Even the most well thought out position on renewable energy must not overstep common sense.

As Cherry Valley Supervisor Tom Garretson so aptly notes, there are options for local municipalities to harness their own wind. He is not alone in his view. More community leaders are realizing that small-scale wind power projects that directly benefit local citizens can bring the environmental community together rather than blowing it apart.

The wind isn't going away, and if we develop a better model for wind-power projects that balances protection of irreplaceable resources with clean, renewable energy, we will be doing the right thing for the environment as a whole.

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