By Randy Edwards
Wind energy is on the march in West Virginia and throughout the Central Appalachian Mountain region. In the form of wind turbines towering above the forest canopy, this source of alternative energy is now near the edge of The Nature Conservancy’s Bear Rocks Preserve and has stopped just short of the Monongahela National Forest.
And while the Conservancy recognizes wind energy as an important option for reducing carbon pollution and reducing the threat of global warming, our scientists are studying the effects of wind-energy development on the forests and streams of the Central Appalachians.
“We love renewables, but it’s all about doing it smartly,” says Thomas Minney, director of the Conservancy’s Central Appalachians Program. “And doing it smartly is all about paying attention to where we build the turbines, roads and transmission lines.”
As part of a regional study of the cumulative effects of energy development, the Conservancy has been comparing areas of high wind-energy potential with areas of important forest and freshwater resources in an eight-state mountain region that runs from New York to Tennessee. At risk are some of the most biologically diverse forests in the East, as well as brook trout streams, migrating hawks and eagles, endangered bats, and forests that help filter drinking water sources for distant cities like Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.
The Conservancy has begun to analyze where high value natural resources overlap with high-wind energy potential, to project the extent of the impact on the ground. A closer look is needed, but early results suggest that wind development could disrupt habitat on at least tens of thousands of acres – up to a few hundred thousand acres. And wind is only part of the equation in the Central Appalachians. The Conservancy’s study, still in progress, will also consider the impact of shale gas development and coal mining.
Of special concern are the hundreds of thousands of acres of high-elevation forests that are species-rich and also have a high potential for wind, much of it currently protected by national forests. So far, there have been no wind facilities in the nation’s federal forests, but a wind farm has been provisionally approved in the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont, and turbine arrays have been proposed on the George Washington National Forest in eastern West Virginia.
“High ridges are where most of the remaining intact habitat in the central Appalachians occurs,” explains Rodney Bartgis, state director for the Conservancy in West Virginia. Bartgis points to a recent a national study by other Conservancy scientists which demonstrates how we can meet the nation’s wind-energy needs by siting wind energy in areas across the United States already impacted by human activities — like agriculture or mining.
“All energy development needs to be appropriately sited, and native forests on these Appalachian ridges may not be the best places.”