As the need for renewable energy becomes more pressing, some of the fiercest duels in the West are now being fought over where to put power lines, wind turbines, solar farms and other needed energy development projects. There is so much at stake in the beautiful landscapes of a place like Colorado that we must be careful to strike the right balance in siting these types of infrastructure.
Thankfully, advocates for conservation and a commonsense approach to development now have a whole new range of tools to use in finding the best places for clean energy projects - tools they can access from their laptops and smartphones.
Smarter energy siting is the goal. That means more efficient projects that don't waste money while preserving iconic landscapes that birds and other wildlife call home.
Take the case of the greater sage-grouse, a native of the American West. Its numbers are shrinking as development chews into its habitat and breaks up the landscapes it needs to survive. It's what we call an indicator species because what's good for the grouse is good for 350 other species that share the same landscape.
Individual advocates, conservation groups including the National Audubon Society, government agencies, landowners and industry together came up with plans to protect the places most vital to the sagebrush ecosystem. Those plans include protecting critical areas from future infrastructure development. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently said that these plans were robust enough to keep the greater sage-grouse off the endangered species list.
It sounds like a pretty simple idea: putting energy infrastructure in the places that cause the least amount of disruption to wildlife and habitat. But it took a massive amount of coordination across 11 states known for their fierce Western independence.
Another big decision was reached this fall: a final resolution to a years-long battle over the location of a huge new transmission line that would have cut through the heart of Colorado's San Luis Valley.
The original plans had the power lines cutting a huge swath through one of our nation's most pristine landscapes. Hundreds of landowners objected to the plan, including the 2013 winner of the Audubon Medal, Louis Bacon, who advocated that the proposed energy transmission lines be rebuilt along an existing utility corridor, rather than through pristine landscapes and damaging critical wildlife habitat.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved that approach this fall. After the utility companies dropped their plans to bisect the San Luis Valley in 2012, Bacon moved to protect the property forever by placing nearly 170,000 acres in the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains under permanent conservation easement.
Invigorated by the work to protect the San Luis Valley, Bacon partnered with Audubon to create the Moore Charitable Foundation Energy Siting Resource Center, which gives individual advocates and local conservation groups tools and resources they need to make their voices heard and effect change.
That's the point, after all: Each of us has the potential to speak up and make a difference.
- To help save the greater sage-grouse, for example, local Audubon chapters and partners responded to the BLM's draft protection plans in all 11 Western states by advocating for maximum protections for the birds and the places they live.
- In California, advocates affiliated with Audubon helped secure improvements to a California solar facility that will power Apple's headquarters. These improvements will benefit the golden eagle and other birds.
- Conservationists are working on other energy siting projects from Florida to Idaho and California to Long Island Sound. And beyond energy siting, they are tackling other pressing needs like Colorado River flows and other environmental concerns.
Well over 100 years ago, when women in Boston and other cities started banding together to end the slaughter of birds for the fashion industry, their work led to the creation of the National Audubon Society.
Today the tools of advocacy have changed, and so have some of the challenges, but here's what hasn't changed: When we stand up for our convictions and find like-minded people to join our cause, we can make the world a better place for people and birds.
I invite readers to join us at www.audubon.org.
David Yarnold is president and CEO of the National Audubon Society