"What we hope to do is to look across the landscape and evaluate the cumulative impacts of energy development on our most important natural areas."
- Rodney Bartgis, state director of The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia
It’s energy that brings eastern golden eagles to the Appalachian Mountains: wind energy. When these magnificent birds leave their Canadian nesting grounds and head south for the winter, they follow the high ridges of the Appalachians to better exploit the power of thermals and updrafts beneath their seven-foot wingspans.
These rarely seen eagles are not the only ones searching for energy in the Mountain State. Wind turbines are going up for miles along the Allegheny Front. Natural gas wells spread across the Monongahela National Forest. Coal companies, a source of power and jobs in West Virginia for decades, continue to find new sources of the substance and new technologies for extracting it.
In addition to energy production, energy transmission will cut new swaths across West Virginia. One proposed high-voltage power line, for example, may carry electricity across the Monongahela National Forest and the Appalachian Trail on its way to power-hungry cities on the East Coast.
A Shocking Revolution
“It’s clear that West Virginia and the rest of the Appalachians are at the center of an energy revolution as we seek alternative energy sources and a way to help the United States become less dependent on foreign oil,” says Rodney Bartgis, the Conservancy’s state director in West Virginia. “And in the path of this development lie some of our most cherished places.”
How will West Virginia’s nature fare in the face of the nation’s growing appetite for home grown energy? The Nature Conservancy is attempting to answer that question in a comprehensive analysis of energy development in West Virginia and throughout the Central Appalachians.
“Every type of energy development has an impact on the land, and concerns have been raised about each of these sources,” Bartgis explains. “Will wind turbines block the golden eagles’ migration routes? Will gas drilling harm our trout streams? How will coal mining further fragment our forestlands? How will transmission lines affect our national forests?
“Until now, everyone has been looking at these impacts project by project, or source by source,” he continues. “What we hope to do is to look across the landscape and evaluate the cumulative impacts of energy development on our most important natural areas.”
Knowledge is Power
The model for this assessment comes from Pennsylvania, where the Conservancy has recently completed exactly this sort of comprehensive analysis.
Released last November, the Pennsylvania study considered the cumulative impact of wind energy and natural gas development on forests and streams. The key finding: Energy development in Pennsylvania over the next 20 years could transform the Keystone State’s iconic forests and impact several hundred thousand acres of key habitat for songbirds, salamanders and trout.
“We can no longer protect nature without thinking about energy development,” explains Nels Johnson, deputy director for the Conservancy’s Pennsylvania Chapter and lead author of the energy analysis.
Johnson will be part of a team of researchers from West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky and Tennessee that will conduct the analysis throughout the Central Appalachian region between now and the end of the year. Energy sources under consideration include surface coal mining, coalbed methane, shale gas and wind energy.
The scientists will review aerial photographs, sift through permit applications, map existing and proposed power lines and consider other factors, such as access to transportation, which might guide decisions about energy production. “The basic idea is to adapt what we’ve done in Pennsylvania to the rest of the Central Appalachians,” he says.
When the analysis is complete it will be provided to energy developers, government agencies and conservation groups, to inform them about where development is most likely to pose risks to our most important natural areas—and guide steps to avoid them.
“We recognize that the search for alternative forms of energy is critical to our future, both for the nation’s security and to head off the worst of the possible effects of climate change,” Bartgis says. “But by letting our science lead us, we hope to guide this development in a way that also protects our lands and waters.”
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