Grassland Bird Trust says solar panels will block short-eared owl from winter hunt
FORT EDWARD — Environmentalists warn that state-endangered and -threatened grassland birds could be evicted from the New York-designated birding trail if 750 acres of solar panels are installed atop their winter habitat.
Grassland Bird Trust is fighting to reduce the footprint of a 100-megawatt network of solar arrays in Fort Edward and Argyle proposed by Boralex, a Quebec-based renewable energy company. As currently proposed, the Boralex panels will be placed in fields, some of which are deemed critical to the survival of short-eared owls, northern harriers and snowy owls as well as other grassland birds.
“If the panels go up, small birds might be OK between the panels, but the raptors, the short-eared owls and the kestrels won’t be able to dive in and out between panels to hunt,” Katherine Roome, secretary for the Grassland Bird Trust, said. “We are concerned that Boralex chose an environmentally sensitive area.”
Boralex project developer Marc Stachiw was unavailable for comment on Monday. However, Boralex's website boasts the project will generate 120 jobs during its construction, bolster the tax coffers of both towns and their schools and help the state achieve its goal of 70 percent clean energy by 2030. It also indicated it hopes the panels can go online by 2024.
The company website also says its mission is to decarbonize the globe in a way that firmly protects the environment.
Yet that mission statement does not ease the concerns of the Grassland Bird Trust. Ron Renoni, a member of the trust's advisory board, said he remains concerned about the impacts it will have on the birds, which he said are unclear.
"That's the million-dollar question," Renoni said. "The short-eared owls will have to move if they don't have enough adequate food. We will have to monitor it and see what happens."
Grassland Bird Trust and Stachiw have met to discuss what can be done. However, the company has not agreed to the nonprofit's request – mainly moving some of the panels to establish an unimpeded corridor for the birds on what is part of the state Birding Trail.
Boralex's plan involves using the land either purchased or leased from 23 private property owners scattered throughout Washington County.
Roome said her organization, which she emphasized supports renewable energy, would also like Boralex to consider selling some of the land it has bought to an organization that will sell carbon credits off the untouched property. That would make the company financially whole and help protect some of the 13,000 acres that have been established as important birding areas in Fort Edward, Argyle and Kingsbury.
“It’s the largest area in eastern New York and the second largest in New York state.” Roome also said Grassland Bird Trust has offered to maintain the properties that it is asking Boralex to vacate.
For the past 12 years, Grassland Bird Trust has been working to conserve the agricultural fields on which these birds, including red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks as well as snow buntings and horned larks, nest and hunt during the winter. The organization has purchased 78 acres as well as assisted the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s purchase of another 478 acres. No DEC lands are involved in the solar array plan.
The group has also helped to establish two viewing areas — one on Black House Road and another on County Route 42. A view from Little Theater on the Farm on Plum Road is also a popular location for watching the birds. Roome said fields across from the theater are also slated as potential sites for the solar arrays.
Agriculture fields, ideal for grassland birds, are also ideal for solar arrays because they are flat, treeless and, in this case, near a power grid, Roome said.
This is especially concerning because in the last 50 years, 700 million grassland birds have disappeared, she said. That’s a 53 percent decline nationwide.
According to the rules set down by the state Office of Renewable Energy Siting, Boralex will have to mitigate the damage caused to the bird population by conserving 0.4 acres for every acre of solar panels that was once for grassland birds breeding and 0.2 acres for every acre of solar panels that was once for grassland bird winter habitat.
In that case, Roome said Boralex will be forced to conserve less than 100 acres for the birds. Renoni said they are pushing Boralex to go beyond the regulations and conserve more land than is legally required. He said the process has been complicated because the state is pushing renewable energy at the same time it is prioritizing grassland bird habitat.
"The state wants everything and it is putting itself in this bind," Renoni said.
Regardless, Roome said all this is troubling to the endangered population of short-eared owls, which fly up from the ground en masse at dusk to hunt voles – a sight that birders from across the globe travel to the area to see.
“It’s unbelievable,” Roome said. “At dusk, 20 owls will pop out of the ground. It’s astounding. I’ve been on a safari and this is much better than a safari. It’s an invaluable resource for the area. … We could have both renewable energy and the birds if Boralex (will) work with us."