Carter: Save the Highland Mountains

LEXINGTON TOWNSHIP, MAINE — My family has a long history with Yale. My great-grandfather was the first professor of German, my grandfather graduated in 1900, my father in 1938 and my brother in 1968. All of these relatives had­ — and those still living still do — a great affection for the Great North Woods of Maine. In fact, it is this long history of the Carters’ love of Maine that brought me and my family to Maine over 30 years ago. We settled on a rural farm in Sandy Stream Valley in the shadow of the Highland Mountains and close to the spectacular Bigelow Preserve. Now we are confronted, apparently as a result of Yale’s desire for an ever larger endowment, with a proposal to build the largest grid scale industrial wind power plant ever in Maine in our backyard on the wild and scenic Highland Mountains.

Yale students, faculty and alumni should be outraged by University investments that will destroy the ecological integrity of the Maine mountains. They should be further appalled that Yale’s investment managers refuse to admit their culpability, hiding behind some notion of the propriety of their investments and the Delaware shell corporation Bayroot.

While some folks may be under the illusion that mountaintop industrial wind is green, the project on the Highland Mountains, and mountaintop wind more generally, is anything but. Maine’s version of wind production is erecting 40-story turbines (twice as tall as the highest building in Maine) on its mountaintops. To build them, fragile alpine and subalpine terrain on steep slopes must be blasted away. The proposed Highland Mountains wind project calls for 1.6 million cubic yards to be blasted out. It will take 100,000 truckloads to move all this debris. The road system will have to support a load of 90 tons; in places it will have to be a hundred feet wide in order to accommodate the monstrous machinery and turbine parts transport. This type of huge scale excavation can never be restored — the mountain will be irreversibly damaged.

In addition, mountaintop wind may not reduce greenhouse gases. Wind is intermittent and unreliable, so it is necessary to maintain backup power (a spinning reserve) to fill in for wind power when the wind is not blowing. Carbon emitting power plants — gas, oil and coal — must remain in operation and kept running on standby. When the wind blows, generation at these plants must be adjusted, but sudden adjustments make the plants less efficient and increase emissions. The turbines also require electricity, which must be generated and brought to the site. Finally, massive clear cutting on ridgelines compounds the problem as it leads to the loss of carbon sequestering forests. A Bentek Energy study found that in Colorado wind power actually increased carbon emissions by as much as 10 percent.

The wind project also threatens our alpine ecosystems, which are home to rare species including the bog lemming, the spring salamander, the roaring brook mayfly and rare birds like the bald eagle and the Bicknell thrush. Wetlands and streams will be filled. The hydrology will be altered and affect aquatic life. The massive 8-mile wall of turbine blades, each sweeping an area of over 1.5 acres at a speed of 180 mph, will kill birds and bats. While the science of the impacts of turbines on wildlife, other than birds and bats, is just emerging, several recent studies point to changes in foraging behavior, predator-prey relationships, reproductive success and communication. A study published in March in Trends in Ecology & Evolution documented that a 3 decibel increase in noise — barely a perceptible change — can reduce animals listening area by 30 percent and an increase of 10 decibels reduces listening areas by as much as 90 percent. Anecdotal observations by residents of Mars Hill and Freedom turbine sites in Maine indicate that once abundant moose and deer have declined or disappeared from the area surrounding the turbines.

I understand that from a distance, turbines might seem “sort of magical.” But magical they are not when one is confronted at all hours with the twirling of blades, shadow flicker and constant illumination of red and white lights. Noise pollution will drive some people away. The 48 turbines slated for the Highland Mountains will rise over 400 feet. These mammoth structures will face the Bigelow Preserve, one of the most prized wilderness areas in Maine and a part of the Appalachian Trail. Thousands of hikers come to this area from around the globe to find solitude and connections with nature. Putting an industrial power plant in the middle of this pristine natural gem, is akin to defacing a priceless piece of art.

Furthermore, it is far from clear that the wind will benefit our town economically. Developers talk about the benefit of jobs and increased local and state tax revenues. But while the 38-week leveling and construction phase will generate 200 jobs, when it ends only four to six permanent jobs will remain. Local property taxes will go down, but real estate prices will drop, too — people do not want to live near turbines. The state and county may collect some tax dollars, but tourism will decline. Understand also that 60 percent of the cost of wind development that is paid with tax dollars — stimulus money, production tax credits and accelerated depreciation — and that we will need to fund new and upgraded transmission lines and construct back up conventional power plants.

There are alternatives to mountaintop industrial wind that would be less ecologically damaging and have a far greater impact in fighting the catastrophe of climate change. For instance, we could spend all this government money on conservation and energy efficiency. Since most Mainers heat with oil, we could reduce our carbon emissions by better weatherizing our homes. We could invest in other forms of renewable energy. In the process, thousands of permanent jobs all across Maine could be created.

But if this development is allowed to go forward, the floodgate will be opened for mountain slayers and profiteers to destroy as much as 360 miles of mountaintops and ridgelines. I am asking Yale’s students, faculty and alumni to join our fight to stop the potential destruction of our beloved Highland Mountains and iconic Bigelow Preserve. I am asking you to demand that your investment managers leave the national treasure of the Maine mountains alone.

Jonathan Carter is a resident of Lexington Township, the director of the Forest Ecology Network and a former Green Party gubernatorial candidate.

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