When the young boy in the Hans Christian Andersen fable cried out “The emperor has no clothes!” the people of the kingdom realized that the ruse was over. They could no longer keep up the pretense that their leader’s imaginary new suit was indeed splendid. Had one of the emperor’s aides spoken out earlier, he could have been spared a great deal of embarrassment.
A similar trick to the one played by the tailors in the Andersen tale is being perpetrated on the public today by the wind industry. We are being cajoled into ignoring what lies beneath their carefully crafted illusion. They tell us that because wind is carbon-free, smog-free, and acid rain-free, it is therefore guilt-free, and we should embrace it without reservation or restriction. But remove the green veneer and we find the truth: wind power kills birds — lots of them — and it is time someone spoke out before it is too late.
As the U.S. wind power build-out gathers speed, millions of birds are being killed in collisions with turbines, power lines, and a host of associated structures. More birds are losing breeding, foraging, wintering, and migratory stopover habitat to the footprint of these massive developments. While the wind industry keeps up the pretense that there is no problem, others are already proposing a solution.
In a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Bird Conservancy has provided a way forward for the continued development of wind power that also reduces the burden on bird populations. It uses a mechanism already well-established to protect birds from over-hunting: “take” permits under one of America’s foremost wildlife laws, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
For nearly 100 years, in order to reverse and prevent recurrence of the catastrophic effects of unrestrained market hunting that nearly wiped out many of America’s game species, all hunters have had to purchase MBTA hunting permits. The number of permits issued, the numbers of birds that can be killed, and which species each hunter can take are determined by careful scientific assessments of populations and their ability to withstand the take.
A similar permit system, adapted for incidental take of migratory birds by wind development, would make the industry compatible with today’s wildlife conservation needs. It would allow some take to continue, but would also impose conditions that would limit bird deaths and habitat loss and compensate for any unavoidable bird deaths through new conservation projects.
Some wind proposals would be allowed to go ahead relatively unchanged; others would need substantial modification; while permits for the most egregious proposals — those that would site turbines in or near key bird areas for example — would be denied. ABC is even producing a detailed map of the United States that identifies many of these sites to aid the industry in making the right decisions from the outset.
Even the best wind farms will inevitably kill birds, and so, in addition to the cost of the permit, the developer will be required to compensate for this mortality. But with a permit in hand, he will be indemnified against prosecution for violation of the law.
Will it cost developers more? Certainly. But in relation to the total cost of a project, not prohibitively so.
Will it slow the pace of wind development? Slightly. But ultimately, it will lead to a bird-smart, truly green industry.
It will tailor for us a suit of real substance rather than an illusory cloak that leaves us exposed to future regret that we didn’t do the right thing when we had the opportunity, just like the dam building frenzy of last century for which we now repent at a huge cost.
Gavin Shire is vice president of the American Bird Conservancy in Washington, D.C.