The Tortoise and the Hair-raising Threat

To save our planet we'll have to make sacrifices-and they might include the sage grouse and the desert tortoise.

An old buddy of mine is a wind power developer out West. As he cruises around Colorado and Wyoming scouting the steppe for promising sites, he has run into an unlikely adversary-the sage grouse, a chicken-like bird who's resident in the very same broad, sagebrush-spotted, wind-battered ridges that make wind developers drool. I've been getting a kick out of emailing him every article I come across about the "Wyoming Wind Wars," a growing battle pitting conservationists who want to protect the land and wildlife against wind power developers (generally prodding him with an obnoxious subject line like "It Really Is a Beautiful Bird" or "Audubon Got You Down?").But lately, I haven't been as amused by his expletive-filled replies. I had figured this conflict would sort itself out. But it hasn't. And when I read this week that Horizon Energy (for the record, not my friend's company) was "suspending plans to build a 300-megawatt-capacity wind farm that would have occupied one of dozens of state-designated ‘sage grouse core areas'" because of blowback from local conservation groups and confusion about how the state will be regulating these lands, I stopped laughing entirely.There's nothing funny about the fact that efforts to develop clean energy, and thereby combat climate change-the greatest environmental threat the world has ever known-are being stalled and sullied for environmental reasons.And not just in Wyoming. The Mojave Desert in California is another stage where the Clean Energy vs. Conservation drama is playing out. There are few places in the world that have the solar potential of the Mojave. It's no stretch to say that building solar thermal here where the sun always shines is an essential corner piece of a national clean energy strategy. But the uniquely fragile ecosystem also hosts the desert tortoise, a "threatened" population under the Endangered Species Act with some very vocal defenders. Groups like Defenders of Wildlife and the Wildlands Conservancy are raising red flags and stacking legal roadblocks to halt proposed solar thermal development in one vast, and particularly promising, 647,000-acre stretch of public land that was sold to the government for conservation purposes. The tortoises have an even more powerful ally in Senator Dianne Feinstein, who in March-despite a long, strong record on climate change-made a loud public plea to the Bureau of Land Management to suspend all renewable energy leases while she pushes legislation to establish the desert tract as a National Monument (which would essentially prevent any future development).The tragic irony here is that defenders of the desert tortoise's habitat are, I hope unwittingly, preserving an energy system that will cause the desert to spread all the way to Oklahoma, and a "permanent drought" to reach across a third of the planet.I am a conservationist myself. But given the current stark realities, I'm forced to now focus on conserving what matters most-a stable, habitable climate. There is no question that failure to quickly phase out carbon-spewing coal plants will bring about the demise of a massive and broad array of species on the planet.Environmentalists and conservationists, we need to prioritize. We need to understand and accept that wind in Wyoming and solar thermal in the Mojave are absolutely necessary. Any delay in tapping into these carbon-free renewable energy sources brings us closer to the precipice. I don't doubt that there are ways to build wind farms that won't wipe out the sage grouse and that solar plants can share the desert with the tortoise. Some tools are surfacing to better figure this out. This spring, the Natural Resources Defense Council (full disclosure: I'm the Community Editor of their magazine, OnEarth), released an interactive mapping tool on Google Earth to help "find the best sites for new clean energy projects and transmission lines, so that America can harness renewable power while doing the least damage to the Western environment." It's a useful resource, but far from the ultimate solution. ("All my sites fall in the ‘Should Be Avoided' zone," my wind developer friend complained; for their part, NRDC made no value judgments, but simply mapped out areas that would be highly controversial and, thus, tougher and more expensive to develop.) There isn't time to spare in getting these wind and solar projects off the ground and the sad reality is that certain sacrifices are beyond negotiation.Ultimately, environmentalists and conservationists need to accept that tapping carbon-free energy sources and getting our country off of coal is far and away the top priority. The hell unleashed by unmitigated global warming will render any local conservation battles obsolete. Clean energy developers need to do their best to work with state governments and local groups to reasonably protect habitats, but endless quibbling and delay only ensures that everyone will lose.

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The Planet
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