Excerpts from testimony by John Austin, Vermont Agency of Natural Resources Wildlife Biologist, to Vermont Public Service Board in Green Mountain Power’s Lowell wind project technical hearing on February 7, 2011.
We haven’t seen the likes of this type of development in Vermont
I think in the — in terms of my testimony on fragmentation effects associated with this project, my views and opinions really focused in on commercial-scale wind energy development, because we simply haven’t seen the likes of this type of development, this scale of development in the State of Vermont in these sorts of remote environments since the days when some of the first ski resorts were developed.
An enormous project in a remote, undisturbed environment
I think with respect to the state’s interest in wildlife conservation, wildlife habitat, wildlife resources, as we look at these issues with these large-scale wind energy projects and these remote environments, this is going to be one of our greatest challenges. But I think it’s also one of the most significant impacts that we are going to deal with. It’s a complex issue, trying to identify exactly what the effects are on some of the species associated with the fragmentation. I firmly believe there will be significant and profound fragmentation effects from a project of this scale in nature, in an environment like this. I don’t see how that can be disputed. I wouldn’t begin to characterize them as anything like timber harvest activities. I’ve reviewed timber harvest activities in this state for nearly 20 years now through the CPG that this very Board issued for the Ryegate Associates’ power facility and the Burlington Electric power facility, not to mention all the timber harvest activities that we do on state lands. In all those years and the thousands of timber harvest activities that I’ve either overseen or reviewed for those processes, I’ve never seen anything on the order of this. This is an enormous project in a remote, undisturbed environment. It will fragment this area of forest interior habitat. So the question to me is not let’s argue about whether or not it’s going to have fragmenting effects. I’m confident it will, and the science, I believe, supports that. So let’s talk about if we are going to try and accommodate this sort of development and these kinds of environments, how are we going to offset those effects? Which I don’t think will be easily done, and there are no clear-cut answers or solutions to do that.
A profound change to the landscape
You’re talking about multiple species, and you’re talking about populations in a variety of scales. But one of the reasons we focus on these forest interior bird species, their populations have been steadily in decline. It’s debatable what is the main cause of that decline, but frankly it’s a process of diminishing returns. There is all sorts of factors that affect mortality of this species in various regions of North America. And so we have had this debate with the industry, and we have been looking at effect of these projects on migrating bird collisions. How do you try to characterize the effect of bird mortality — what is significant mortality for birds colliding with the turbines? It’s very hard to do. If you’re looking at it in a local population level, the regional population level, continental population level, I tend to be a common sense kind of person. I think if this is a group of species that is challenged in a variety of ways, their welfare and their survival, it’s part of our responsibility to look out for their interests. And we are looking at something that to me just on its face suggests it’s going to have a major change in this forest interior habitat, and we ought to be mindful of that. We ought to be cautious about that. We haven’t said to the industry, no, this is unacceptable. But we are saying, gee, this is an — it seems to me it’s a profound change to the landscape here. Certainly going to affect this species. Isn’t there some way to try and offset it?
And you don’t think the 580 acres of mitigation that the company’s proposed adequately does that for the song birds?
Not for the song birds, no.
Why is that?
Because the fragmentation effects, to me, are so much greater than the effects of the project on the bears’ access to a use of this beech tree. It’s a broader sort of ecological effect rather than the effect on one particular species moving to and from this one particular habitat type. It would easier for me to get my mind around that one particular species and habitat issue than it is this broader sort of less well-defined ecological effect on the myriad of species from a project of this nature and that kind of environment.
There has got to be a better way to do it
The issue of energy policy, does ANR have anybody on staff now that has the expertise to factor state energy policy into concerns that ANR has like song birds, bear habitat and deer habitat and various other things that you do have the expertise for? Do you have anybody to do that at this point?
Not that I’m aware of. Although I would defer to counsel on that one. But I would say this, because we have been thinking about this issue for a long time, and you know, these — reviewing these projects and dealing with them in this way on a case-by-case basis, takes a lot of time and resources and — takes a lot of time and resources. And I’m convinced there has got to be a better way to do it. And I think that we need to approach it as you described. We want more of a statewide policy and planning perspective. Is there a way, for instance, to identify areas in the state that we are confident either are or are not suitable for a variety of reasons, not just our reasons, but this needs to be a collaborative effort with ANR, the industry, the DPS, and others, to look comprehensively at to what extent can we accommodate this kind of wind energy development in the State of Vermont, and how does it fit into the state’s energy portfolio. You folks, I respect your positions, and I know you’re challenged with the balancing act of trying to weigh the public benefits and costs of all this stuff. I don’t envy your position. But this broader dialogue needs to happen in a collaborative fashion in my view. We have been anxious to have it for quite awhile.
Climate Change and the Importance on Connectivity
You mention the term connectivity, that is a concept that we are trying to apply to this project as we look for ways to offset what we view as the fragmentation effects of the project. So if you decide to accommodate the project and its attendant effects, and this gets at the question of to what extent is the Agency concerned about climate change and global warming, we are very concerned about it. It’s one of the most pressing conservation challenges that we face today. And one of the main strategies that you look at to combat the effects of a change in climate on at least fish and wildlife is to create a landscape that is resilient to those changes that are affected by climate. The way you do that is to ensure that areas connecting habitat, that connects large blocks of unfragmented habitat are conserved so that you allow or create the opportunities for animals to move freely around the landscape as they adjust to a changing climate.
Compared to ski areas
Q. Okay. There was — you were talking about the review of this project, and I think you made reference to ski area projects. Have you ever reviewed a ski area project that involved a four-mile road across the ridgeline?
A. I’m not aware of any ski resort in the State of Vermont that has the road of that length in its upper elevations, no.