Why Trout Fishermen Worry About Wind Turbines

The Chokecherry/Sierra Madre wind farm promises to spin up enough electrons to power a million homes, but the project is also a poster child for the fears and anxieties renewable energy can bring to rural America— and to anglers.


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SARATOGA, WYOMING—As he rolls down a BLM two-track in his truck, Jeff Streeter looks out to the Sierra Madre Mountains to the west and the mesas of Sage Creek Basin to the east. “I don’t want to see this happen,” says the North Platte River project manager for the national chapter of Trout Unlimited. “But I say that for purely selfish reasons.”

He’s talking about the Chokecherry/Sierra Madre wind energy project, which is slated to fill a good chunk of the perpetually-windy ridgelines throughout Carbon County, Wyoming, with wind turbines. In fact, the region’s resources were blowing so hard on that late spring afternoon, I could barely stand my ground when we got out of the truck to take in the vista.

Streeter, who leads river restoration on the North Platte and its tributaries, is no climate-change denier, and he readily admits that we as a nation need to rely more on clean-burning energy sources and less on the coal and gas that have already left indelible marks on Wyoming’s landscape (it’s called Carbon County for a reason). But wind power, he says, “Shouldn’t just be considered ‘green’ energy.”

It has negative impacts, just like any other form of energy. Birds meet their demise at massive turbine blades. A watchdog group says turbine blades kill more than half a million each birds year in the U.S.—83,000 of which are raptors. (The American Wind Energy Association told me those numbers are bogus, and that the actual take is more like 190,000.)  While they’re emissions-free, turbines are not free of infrastructure. They can disrupt habitat or migration corridors, they often require networks of new roads and transmission lines.

As an organization, Trout Unlimited (T.U.) certainly does not deny climate change, either. Its Renewable Energy Coordinator T.O. Smith pointed out during an information session at the Saratoga Resort (before we all headed out to see the ridgelines that will be dotted with turbines from the Chokecheery/Sierra Madre project) that 60 percent of the Western trout populations are endangered because of rising water temperatures—the fate of the brook trout in southern Appalachian streams is even more dire, with 90 percent threatened. T.U. makes no effort to obfuscate the links between those rising temps and anthropomorphic climate change.

When it comes to the placement and scale of wind and solar projects on public lands, however, other issues also beg the group’s attention. For example, the 400 miles of new gravel roads needed to support the Chokecheery/Sierra Madre project will make roughly the same number of stream crossings, so sediment build up is on top of mind for local fishing guides. Placement of turbines or solar arrays on public lands could impinge access to public fishing and hunting spots. So at the very least, T.U. wants to be at the table when major projects are being permitted.

In fact, T.U.’s CEO Chris Wood told us reporters that renewable energy development is among the top issues the organization is working on (though its top priority is stopping the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska, which would threaten the world’s most productive salmon fishery).

“In 20 or 30 years, we won’t recognize the public landscape in terms of how much renewable energy [development it will contain],” Wood said. That’s a good thing, he said, as long as the projects are done sustainably—and not just environmentally sustainably, but also in a manner that ensures the economic sustainability for the communities from which wind and sunshine will be harvested.

This explains why T.U. is making a major push to help advance the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act, a bill that seeks to change how the U.S. Department of the Interior permits, sites and divvies revenues from renewable energy projects on public land.

Protecting Resources and Local Economies

Currently, public lands are leased for renewable energy projects using a non-competitive bidding process, which this legislation would change to a competitive process (which is what the Bureau of Land Management already uses for issuing oil and gas leases). Plus, rather than all royalties from the sales of energy produced through those leases being funneling into the U.S. Treasury, the new law would seek to split revenue between the feds and county and state funds, with a portion being put toward conservation funds. (A quarter of wind and solar lease revenue would go to the host state, another quarter would go to the counties where the project is sited, the Interior Department would see 15 percent and the remaining 35 percent would be used for fish, wildlife and land conservation.)

Aside from its stake in rivers and healthy fisheries, T.U. also has a stake in those hundreds of small Western towns through which fly-casting rivers run. Saratoga is a good example of this kind of town, and locals are worried that they won’t see benefits from Chokecheery/Sierra Madre, aside from a boost in jobs opportunities during the construction phase.

Sue Jones, the commissioner of Carbon County, told us she sees the wind project as both a huge opportunity and a major concern. “When you grow up in Wyoming, the viewscape is what you have. It’s wide open spaces,” she said.

But aside from marring the view, she and other officials are worried that the wind project will create demands for housing and other resources that Saratoga and other nearby communities can’t possibly meet on their own. The Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act could be used to help allocate resources and infrastructure that benefit local communities in the long term. For example, rather than construction workers living in “man camps” outside town, or taking up hotel rooms that would otherwise be used by vacationers, they could live in new housing units, in town, that would later be transitioned into, say, elder housing, which is already in short supply.

The hope is that communities like Saratoga can adjust to the changes without harming the tourism industry it relies on. “There are existing economies here right now that cannot and should not be sacrificed” for the wind project, Jones said.

T.U. has championed the bill during the past two legislative seasons. The bill has other, more mainstream environmental co-sponsors, as well, including The Nature Conservancy and The Wildlife Society. Comparatively, T.U. has arguably a better chance of getting the legislation passed, because it’s better positioned to garner bi-partisan support.

It’s no secret that many of T.U.’s 150,000 members skew toward older, wealthy, conservative anglers. But the group also wants to attract younger fly-fishermen and women, who likely trend to the left, politically. Perhaps this is reflected, even just a little, in the fact that the bill has the enthusiastic support of both Republican Representative (and Tea Party favorite) Paul Gosar from Arizona and Democratic Senator Jon Tester (who recently endorsed gay marriage).

What remains to be seen is whether broad bi-partisan support will overcome the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate that the bill would contribute to the deficit (by reallocating how revenue from leases is distributed). Still T.U.’s renewable energy campaign director Brian Zupancic says the CBO’s score could change as the bill progresses. “This bill has a real chance,” he says.

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