This week, Cleveland Plain Dealer bird blogger, Jim McCarty, wrote a delightful article on the successes of Audubon's Seabird Restoration Program in nurturing and tracking the return of rare seabirds to Maine's coastal areas. Mr. McCarty is obviously a bird enthusiast who has spent time researching and writing about the risks to migrating birds should a "string of colossal power-producing windmills" be erected in Lake Erie.
This week he offered an update to his research by reporting on the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service ("USFWS") Advisory Committee now preparing turbine siting guidelines designed to protect birds from wind turbines. He wrote that this action by USFWS "came in response to pressure from environmental conservation groups" including the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and opined that a "bird-friendly boost from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service" will convince wind proponents to make necessary concessions in order to protect our feathered friends.
Unfortunately, Mr. McCarty's optimistic explanation for why USFWS established the Advisory Committee reflects a rewrite of history dating back to 2003. Windaction.org warns that he and other wildlife activists not take any solace in the Committee's work for a host of reasons.
A time line of the events as they relate to this Committee may help reveal why skepticism of its work product is warranted.
May, 2003: The US Fish and Wildlife Service released its Guidance on Avoiding and Minimizing Wildlife Impacted from Wind Turbines. USFWS regional directors were informed that "wind energy facilities can adversely impact wildlife, especially birds and bats, and their habitats. More facilities with larger turbines can lead to cumulative effects that will initiate or contribute to the decline of some wildlife populations." The Service made it clear that the guidelines did not negate or otherwise weaken existing federal laws protecting wildlife. The guidelines called for a minimum of three years of preconstruction studies to assess risk to migrating birds.
January 2006: The wind industry viewed the USFWS Guidelines as "impractical, inappropriately restrictive, and developed without adequate industry input". A letter surfaced, authored by Mark Sinclair of Clean Energy States Alliance, a wind advocacy group, announcing a collaborative process for resolving wind/wildlife conflicts. His letter stated the outcome of this process "may result in a product that is significantly different than the existing USFWS Interim Guidance". Members of the collaborative included USFWS, the American Wind Energy Association - the powerful wind industry trade group - National Audubon Society, Sinclair's Clean Energy States Alliance, and others. The meetings were not publicly noticed, nor were they open to the public. Laurie Jodziewicz, spokeswoman for AWEA, said the point of the group was to "develop guidelines that everyone could agree on."
Make no mistake. This effort was not triggered by environmental conservation groups. To the contrary, such groups, including National Audubon, were complicit in the industry's effort to weaken our national Guidelines.
January 31, 2006: The founders of Windaction.org with others sent a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton inquiring about the collaborative process and asking whether USFWS intended to "comply with the basic openness and accountability provisions of the Federal Advisory Committee Act ("FACA"), 5 U.S.C. App 2." FACA applies to any committee established or utilized by one or more agencies in the interest of obtaining advice or recommendations for the Federal Government. Its provisions also require that committees be fairly balanced in terms of points of view represented and the function to be performed.
We were rightly concerned that closed-door meetings would simply be an opportunity for the wind industry and its advocates to force revisions of the agency's Guidance in a manner that made turbine siting and operation easier, but detrimental to wildlife.
February 9, 2006: Scheduled first meeting of the Collaborative. Upon receipt of our January 31 letter, the process was canceled.
March 2007: The USFWS announced it would be forming an Advisory Committee based on FACA. The intent of the Committee was to evaluate and develop guidelines for the safe siting of wind energy facilities.
October 2007: The Committee and members list were formally announced. Of the 22 members (including Mark Sinclair) none possessed research expertise or experience involving bat interactions with wind turbines nor expertise in bird impacts especially with respect to effects on migratory birds using the Appalachian mountain ridges in the eastern U.S. Other expert deficiencies were glaring.
January 17, 2008: Windaction.org and others submitted a letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorn informing him that the composition of the committee was illegally skewed in favor of wind industry representatives and the selection process ignored leading experts on critical wildlife impacts.
Shortly after, Dr. Clait Braun declined his appointment to the Committee telling Windaction.org that one reason was that the Committee was stacked in favor of wind interests. Others declined participation leaving a few openings. In response to our letter, the Service scrambled to fill the slots with bat "experts".
March 6, 2008: USFWS Career Deputy Director Ken Stansell responded in a proforma letter stating "We believe the selection of the members met the goal of achieving balance" among geographic regions, wildlife interests and industry interests.
January and April, 2009: The first few drafts of the guidelines were released by the Committee for public comment.
May 11, 2009: Windaction.org and others submitted a second letter to Secretary Salizar requesting he immediately suspend work on the committee citing excessive industry influence in preparing the Committee's draft recommendations.
To date, our concerns with the Committee's membership have been ignored.
Scientists have written to USFWS expressing concern with the draft guidelines including Dr. Shawn Smallwood, a prominent biologist in the area of impacts of wind turbines on avian life. Those familiar with the history of the Committee and the 'agendas' of its individual members have little faith that its work product will serve any value in protecting vulnerable wildlife resources - a job we would have thought to be the highest priority for the USFWS.
Windaction.org encourages greater Congressional oversight by the House Natural Resources Committee. Some States are being more proactive than the Feds. For instance, Mr. McCarty and other bird enthusiasts may wish to look to New York State for its guidance released in January 2009.