October 12, 2008

Wind Farms, Prairie Chickens Can Coexist


Agreen tide is overtaking this country. It's putting environmental issues on the minds of many Americans on a regular basis for the first time in, perhaps, decades. This shift is evident in the abundant number of media stories about the trend.

I, for one, think this is a change for the better. Oklahomans are facing a whole suite of environmental issues, all of which could have longterm e&ects on our state and its citizens. The more everyone is informed, the more likely it becomes that we can solve issues and seize opportunities in a collaborative, proactive manner that will benefit us all in the future.

Wind power is one of the solutions to our energy needs both here in Oklahoma and beyond, as well as providing a new industry and the jobs that support it. The amount of electricity that could be produced here over the next 20 years is staggering. So is the economic benefit it could bring.

Also noteworthy is the potential for wind energy to be not so green after all. Wind farms, like any type of development, built on the wrong site can have a negative impact on the environment. Strides toward solving one conservation problem should not inadvertently cause another.

Although we have not yet arrived at this point with wind energy, we are on the verge of doing so, especially when one considers the pace at which the industry is expanding. Specifically, it's about the expanses of native prairie habitat that still remain here in Oklahoma.

This quintessential Oklahoma landscape, linked so intimately to our past, has seen better days.We have but a fraction of this habitat still remaining across the nation. But Oklahomans still have a large piece of this natural heritage to enjoy, and we should embrace this resource and make sure it's here for future generations.

The problem is that areas with some of the best wind energy potential are located on some of the best remaining prairie habitats, including those where the greater and lesser prairie chickens live and breed. These species, like other prairie obligates, have evolved over millennia to avoid tall structures because, quite simply, that's where the avian predators, such as the red-tailed hawk, would roost while looking for their next meal.

Research shows that the tall structures on a wind farm can render habitat useless to some species for miles, even if they look good to you and me. Furthermore, placing a wind farm on top of these sensitive places along with all the necessary pad sites and access roads would not only destroy a big swath of prairie, it would further fragment these dwindling habitats into smaller and smaller pieces. The same holds true for the transmission lines that must be constructed to carry the electricity from rural to urban areas.

A big part of avoiding catastrophe is education. Without it, the issue will turn into one that pits people against prairie chickens, and this is a fight that will not solve a thing. Most people, including some who work in the wind industry, were unaware of this potential problem until recently.

Fortunately, because of the green nature of wind energy, there is growing concern among these corporations about the issue. Several state and federal agencies, along with conservation organizations and the Oklahoma Wind Power Initiative, are already working toward the development of tools to help avoid conflicts.

One of the first steps was to develop an interactive map that shows the overlap between wind potential and sensitive habitats. It can be found at tulsaworld.com/windmap.

Let's be a leader not only in the amount of wind energy we produce, but also in the way we produce it.

Theodore Roosevelt said, "The prairie doesn't run o& with your heart the way a mountain does. Its beauties are subtle, rooted in the hues of the grasses, the undulations of the land, the infinite sky. The prairie is a girl whose beauty lies in her smile."

In other words, the prairie and its chickens are well worth conserving.

Mike Fuhr is state director of The Nature Conservancy.

Originally published by MIKE FUHR Business Viewpoint.

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