Not all birds equal

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board January 13, 2012 10:36 pm

The federal government has shown a curious inconsistency in its concern for wildlife over the past quarter century or so.

Early in that period, the plight of the spotted owl was deemed so dire that, by way of a federal judge’s ruling and the subsequent policies of several federal agencies, it was decided that only a drastic curtailment of logging on public lands could fix the problem.

Northwest salmon and steelhead runs were afforded similarly aggressive protection.

By contrast, the region’s burgeoning wind power industry, largely a product of the past decade, has about it the feel of a 19th century gold rush.

Hundreds of turbines have gone up in Oregon alone. Yet the feds (and to an extent the state), although they concede in their voluminous studies the potentially harmful effects of this rapid build-up, don’t seem inclined to exert the government’s considerable power to significantly slow the pace of wind farm construction, at least until there are more answers than questions about those effects.

If anything, federal and state officials emphasize the purported benefits of wind energy rather than these poorly understood potential pitfalls, which might include things other than the obvious collisions between birds and bats and turbine blades.

A study done a few years ago by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, for example, recommends that, in assessing the long-term effects of wind development in its entirety, rather than the effects of a single farm, agencies consider not only the obvious detriments — raptors killed by spinning turbine blades — but also less-direct benefits to wildlife habitat.

The ODFW study, which is part of a larger analysis that also involved federal agencies, argues that because wind farms can help reduce the effects of global climate change, that benefit should be balanced against the downside of some birds getting sliced up.

This is not unreasonable, of course. All effects should be taken into account — the good and the bad, both locally and, if possible, globally.

Yet this seems incongruent compared with the general government attitude toward, say, hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Those dams rank favorably, on the green scale, with wind farms — neither source relies on carbon dioxide-spewing fossil fuels.

But agencies don’t seem as enthusiastic about jotting that advantage on the positive side of the dams’ ledger.

The focus, rather, seems to be on whether the dams’ appetite for anadromous fish is enough to warrant their removal.

To be clear: We’re not opposed to building more wind farms in Oregon and elsewhere.

We believe wind is a vital source of energy as we prepare for a post-petroleum future.

But the government, at whatever level, would be irresponsible (and not a little hypocritical) to treat wind energy as a unique case.

That’s the brand of shortsightedness that got us into trouble in the forests.

If we act as though harnessing the wind now is more important than making a reasonable prediction about the environmental cost decades later, then we might face some unpleasant choices in the future.

In the past we’ve had to pit spotted owls against mill jobs. Today we ponder salmon and megawatts of hydropower.

Twenty years from now we don’t want to have to decide between felling those forests of turbines, or preserving populations of hawks and eagles.