Every spring, I spend as much time as possible in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, especially along the South Shore of Lake Superior. Birds headed north get stopped by this, the largest lake in the world, and flood along the shoreline in huge numbers. The quality of birding is amazing. And every summer I spend a week in Eagle River, Wisconsin, teaching an elderhostel birding class. Eagle River is not far from the state line, and our trips cover areas in both Wisconsin and Michigan. People come from all over to go birding in some of the loveliest habitat in the country. The wealth of warblers alone is outstanding—in much of the eastern United States, people get to see most of these species only for a few weeks during spring migration, but we get to enjoy them all summer—warblers know that the North Woods is the right place to raise their young.
We still have a very high quality of life up here compared with many places in the United States. Looking down from a window seat in an airplane wherever I’m flying, I can’t see a single panoramic view that isn't crisscrossed by highways and broken up into a patchwork that always includes residential areas and agricultural fields. People and the changes we've made are everywhere. Even when flying along the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area in Minnesota or the Sylvania Wilderness in Wisconsin, we can’t help but notice that the wilderness is quite small when seen from above, surrounded by roads, houses, and commercial enterprises.
Geographers make animated gifs showing the spread of people of European origin from the 13 colonies through the rest of what is now the United States, decade by decade, using census data. It frightens me how filled in the map now is—how people have encroached on every single place so that the only ostensibly wild spaces remaining are densely surrounded by people whose activities year by year change the character of this wildness. The change is especially noticeable in areas that once had extremely low human population density, such as the counties surrounding Lake Superior. The human density here is still much lower than in most of the United States, but the trend is clear.
“To whom much has been given, much is expected.” Whether we take our quotes and lessons from Luke's Gospel in the Bible or from John F. Kennedy’s speeches, this simple sentiment has a lot of resonance for many of us. It seems to me that those of us who live in areas where our wonderful quality of life results from the relatively natural character of our surroundings have an essential obligation to do what we can to protect and preserve that natural character as much as possible. We clearly have obligations to our own species as well as nature, but protecting the wild character of our environment benefits us as well as wildlife, ensuring the quality of our water and air and the lovely wild sights and sounds that so many of us require for soul-deep satisfaction in our daily lives.
Right now, the Township of Watersmeet is considering whether to give a permit for one landowner to construct a large wind turbine on the shore of Thousand Island Lake. I am a strong proponent of wind energy and other clean alternatives to burning fossil fuels. I’ve seen wind farms that seem perfectly sited, like two I’ve photographed that are located in corn fields in Illinois and Indiana.
I’d love to see energy-generating wind turbines in medians along thousands of miles of our interstate highways, too. These kinds of areas are among the worst habitats for wildlife and also have low quality scenic value for people, so seem like exactly the right places for wind turbines. But tragically, the places people are most focused on constructing turbines are in the worst possible locations as far as their potential impact on wildlife—along shorelines, coasts, and mountain ranges where habitat may still be good and where migration is known to be heavy.
There is abundant evidence that these structures are dangerous for birds. Diurnal birds such as hawks have been killed in large numbers in collisions with turbines, but people have learned that building the supporting structure as a solid tower rather than as a lattice can at least reduce the numbers of hawks killed.
Any structure directly in the flight path of night-flying migratory birds can kill them, and structures tall enough to require FAA lighting to protect nearby airplanes actually draw in night-flying birds to greatly exacerbate the problem. In a single night last fall, 484 birds perished in collisions with a West Virginia mountaintop wind energy facility. Most of the birds were Blackpoll Warblers—a vulnerable species on many conservation watch lists.
Unfortunately, the impacts of wind technology on wildlife haven’t been tested on wide scales. In every known case where wind turbines have killed large numbers of birds, the wind industry has testified that the kill was a local phenomenon that would not be repeated again or elsewhere. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is greatly limited in advising against projects until they have long-term data establishing beyond the shadow of a doubt that a project will cause serious problems, and they simply do not have the funding or public mandate to do the kinds of testing necessary to prove how serious these dangers are, even though a great many studies and individual cases have shown conclusively that birds are killed by them, sometimes in large numbers. Even after millions of birds had been shown to be killed at communications towers every year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has never been able to regulate them beyond making non-mandatory recommendations as outlined at http://www.fws.gov/habitatconservation/communicationtowers.html (Many of the guidelines provided by US Fish and Wildlife for communications towers are relevant for wind turbines.)
Tragically, air pressure changes within moving turbines are associated with unsustainably high numbers of bat kills. Bats are suffering from a huge array of problems right now, and so until research can find ways of minimizing their deaths at towers, it seems simply irresponsible to add to the crisis. In our day-to-day lives, we notice birds a lot more than bats, and so a lot of people dismiss bat deaths as relatively unimportant, but bats are essential for controlling flying insects. Their role in pollination is far more critical in the tropics than up here, but even in the United States bats are a critical part of the ecosystem.
Wind turbines are known to be noisy, and noise disrupts bird song, requiring various species to change the volume and pitch of their songs or even making them move to other areas. Turbines that jut above surrounding vegetation are not only hazards to winged wildlife—they also damage the wild character of the landscape visually and aurally, affecting our quality of life in both measurable and non-measurable ways. Those of us who live anywhere along Lake Superior know how beautifully wild the lake is, and how disrupting it is when we notice large structures, especially with lights, while gazing over the lake. A 200-foot tower or turbine will take something significant from a large number of people for the profit of a very small number.
Little by little, but inexorably, wild places are becoming settled and changed, and we’re losing more and more of the essential beauty of our little planet. I hope for the sakes of many of us who live in or visit the gorgeous area around Watersmeet that this tiny jewel can be kept beautiful and filled with singing birds for many generations to come. Allowing construction of one tower will create a dangerous precedent, hastening the degradation of this tiny jewel we call home.