The Big Picture
Roughly 40 miles to the southwest lies the Overland Trail Ranch, where 40 miles of haul roads are the first step toward wind farm construction. As we drive around the northeastern section of the ranch, a radio in Kelly Cummins’s truck crackles. A biologist working on a migratory bird survey needs directions to a specific monitoring site. Cummins is the ranch’s director of environmental permitting and compliance, and she has been working on environmental impact assessments since the wind project began in 2008. She lights up when she talks about things like soil conservation and culvert placement.
Near a temporary road sign ordering trucks to slow down near an active eagle nest, Cummins proudly points out tiny sagebrush plants peeking up from an area that was recently reseeded after the roads were built. The Power Company of Wyoming has put a conservation easement on 50,000 acres of the ranch (about 15 percent of the total) for sage grouse protection, meaning that no turbines can go up there.
The company has redesigned the turbine sites multiple times to accommodate new state sage grouse habitat rules and to take into account its own data from years of monitoring the birds. (Redesigns were done for other reasons as well, including keeping turbines out of sight of a popular reservoir.)
The ranch occupies a checkerboard of private and public land—a strange relic of land allocation from the frontier era. The public land areas required years of federal permitting. (Only about 1 percent of wind turbines nationally are on public land.) But in the end, the approval process resulted in what the company says is an unprecedented amount of preconstruction data on birds, wildlife, vegetation, and soils across the ranch.
Company materials point out that the project has a “long-term surface disturbance” of just 2,000 acres. But that’s just the actual footprint on the earth. A thousand wind turbines will bring an almost unfathomable change to the way this place looks and feels. And how they will affect birds and other creatures needs to be considered. Of course, the dangers global warming poses to the land and wildlife of Wyoming (and beyond) will be much larger.
“There are huge impacts to birds from wind farms,” says Alison Holloran, executive director of Audubon Rockies. “And bats and other creatures. But at the same time, global climate change is not only the biggest threat to our birds, it’s the biggest threat to humans.”
The choice isn’t wind farms or nothing. It’s wind farms or fossil fuels. And it’s a choice better made sooner than later, with a long-term perspective that takes into account the relative potential losses of either choice—to wildlife and people. As Wyoming wrestles with the future of its economy, its landscapes, its identity, one thing is certain: Tall white towers will rise from the sagebrush to catch the mighty wind.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.