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Wildlife groups call for more site studies -- New England debate

Despite concerted efforts by the wind industry and wildlife groups in the United States to agree best practice guidelines for siting wind stations, tensions over several planned wind projects in New England are rising. On the one hand, several wildlife organisations charge that not enough site specific field research is being done prior to wind plant construction. On the other hand, other environmental groups and the wind industry counter that the research that wildlife group advocates and agency officials are requesting is excessive and unnecessary.

Caught in the cross-fire is the 50 MW Mars Hill Wind Farm project, proposed for northern Maine by UPC Wind Partners. The project has the strong support of Maine's Governor, John Baldacci, and several environmental watchdog organisations, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Opposing it, however, are wildlife organisations that include the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Fisheries and Wildlife, and the respected Maine Audubon. They say bird migration studies must be conducted for the site and that generic data is not good enough for deciding if a wind farm at Mars Hill could pose a serious risk to several bird species, including bald eagles.

"Maine Audubon clearly is not opposed to wind power and recognises that it can be a significant source of renewable energy. From a wildlife perspective, however -- and Maine Audubon's mission is wildlife conservation -- the application cannot be considered complete without this research," says the group.

Maine Audubon biologist Jodi Jones says UPC's Peter Gish has refused to meet with the group. Gish declines to comment, but biologist Dave Cowan of Devine Tarbell and Associates says additional research is not needed. In consultation with the regulatory agencies a year ago, his group proposed using an extensive review of existing literature, coupled with interviewing knowledgeable local people. No evidence of large concentrations of birds or large migrations came to light, says Cowan.

More of the same

A much smaller mountain project in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, where developer Matt Rubin hopes to build a demonstration project of four 1.5 MW turbines at a disused military radar site, is caught in a similar controversy. The mountain is a nesting site for the state-protected Bicknell's Thrush. State biologists and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) are calling for further study of the bird's habits and the use of the area by other birds and bats.

Rubin says the studies could amount to $800,000. Even if some other agency paid for the studies, "I wouldn't do them," he says. "There's a principle here." TNC biologist John Roe, however, echoes the concerns voiced by the Maine Audubon group. "The applicant focused on background data," Roe says. "No scientific work has been done up there other than inventory."

The ongoing controversy about the correct level of expenditure for pre-construction studies to avoid chance of serious harm to wildlife runs the risk of raising general concern about all wind development in New England. In the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, wind projects like Enxco's Hoosac Wind development received resounding support last year. "All of a sudden, people are getting nervous," says Lauren Gaherty of the Berkshire Planning Commission. She says local biologists have been circulating a letter saying the wind industry's bat and avian studies have not been thorough enough.

The next meeting of wind industry and wildlife representatives, Understanding and Resolving Bird and Bat Impacts, is to be held this month. Helping facilitate it is RESOLVE, a Washington DC organisation specialised in mediation. The meeting has been closed to the press to encourage participants to "think out loud" and facilitate a "healthy dialogue."

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