Commentary

Steve Young: The ruined hills of Lowell

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Steve Young, of Wolcott, a biologist with many decades of field experience, mainly in the Arctic and Boreal regions. He is the founder of the Center for Northern Studies in Wolcott and has taught at several colleges and universities, including Middlebury College.

I live in Wolcott, two towns away from the Community Wind project on the Lowell Mountains. At this distance we have, of course, no “official interest” in what has happened there, but we are among the 20 or more towns on whose upland meadows and homesteads the blinking red lights of the wind towers glare every night.

In the late 1950s, with a new driver’s license and a taste for exploration, I spent a bit of time in the Lowell Mountains. They rise gently from the west side of the Black River Valley and form the northwestern skyline from the house in which I grew up. There was always something friendly and inviting about these hills. I marveled at the abandoned farms, with their cellar holes and twisted old apple trees far up on the high shoulders. How much work went into these short-lived, hardscrabble farms, and how many dreams expired when the people left.

If I were feeling really adventurous, I’d go still higher, to the exposed rock faces and ancient trees, too twisted and hard to access for loggers. I once found a bear trap — fortunately not set, but still chained to a massive iron bar — in a opening in the forest of a high valley. These places were as close to wilderness as you could find in our part of Vermont. There were no hikers’ trails, no ski runs; it was too high and stony and cold to farm, and too hard to get at the few timber trees. They awoke in me a sense of ancient, wild Earth — a sense that later led me to the deep wilderness of the Arctic and other far places, and to a lifelong fascination with the processes that have been working over the eons to culminate, for the moment, in our magically beautiful world.

I have not been walking the Lowell Mountains for many years, nor will I ever do so again. I have seen enough of the photographs, and from an airplane, to be sickened by what has happened. There is simply no glossing over the fact that several miles of the Lowell Mountain ridgelines and slopes have been ruined. They are now a heavy industry zone, of the kind especially found in isolated, low population areas, where few people can see them. These are the kinds of industrial scars I’ve mostly seen in Siberia. The scale is enormous, the disruption of the skin and bones, and aquifers and watercourses, of the mountains is such that it will never be repaired in 100 lifetimes. It would take the glaciers of an Ice Age to obliterate the damage. We will probably never know how much carnage is being done to wildlife, such as bats and migrating birds, since there seems little prospect that unbiased scientific research will ever be carried out.

They awoke in me a sense of ancient, wild Earth — a sense that later led me to the deep wilderness of the Arctic and other far places, and to a lifelong fascination with the processes that have been working over the eons to culminate, for the moment, in our magically beautiful world.

 

I have spent my professional life learning about long-term climate and environmental change, and there is no question in my mind that we are now facing a problem, or array of problems, that pose a fundamental threat to our civilization. To make real progress against these problems, there will be some very high prices to be paid. But this still doesn’t mean that all prices are equal, or that we should uncritically accept any kind of project that claims to tap “green” energy sources. There are degrees of greenness, and industrial wind in Vermont is very low on the scale. While there’s no question that the corporations that build wind towers can make a lot of money — look at the lengths they will go, and the money they will spend to push their project through — the likelihood that these towers will prove to be a viable, long-term source of power seems slender. I expect these towers to be derelict ruins within, at most, a couple of generations.

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Most of the people who support Big Wind live in cities and suburbs far from the ruined mountaintops. Many of them use their lawn mowers and leaf blowers, take their European vacations and Caribbean cruises, and drive 10 miles for a loaf of fresh artisan bread (I do some of these myself). But these activities are at the edges of the areas in which we can make a real, substantial contribution toward the solution of our enormous environmental problems. In fact, lifestyle changes, of many kinds and on a worldwide scale are the only way we can turn away from disaster. But the ruin of our remaining wild country in the service of a half-baked understanding of the nature and scale of our environmental problems is nonsense. The gains are minimal, and mainly cosmetic (at least to those who don’t have to look at the red lights and what they signify) in that they give us a false sense of accomplishment — a chance to pretend that we are making a good faith and effective effort to avert disaster. The price for this illusion is exorbitant. When the solar arrays and prairie and offshore wind generators become obsolete, most traces of their existence can be removed immediately, but the shattered hilltops will never recover.

We are spending a great deal of money trying to mitigate the damage that has been done to Lake Champlain. Are our ridgelines any less deserving of our concern? Does it make any sense to clean up our lake while wrecking our mountains?


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