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Flights Provide Perspective on Booming Wind Development in Wyoming

Wyoming wind sock in front of the National Weather Service building in Cheyenne, WY. photo: Tom Dietrich

Wyoming has world-class wind; just ask any pilot who has tried to plan a flight there. LightHawk volunteer pilot Mike Conway had to reschedule a flight with conservation photographer Dave Showalter for a week because of high winds. And it’s no coincidence that Shannon Rochelle, LightHawk Rockies program manager, trains for her ultra-marathons by running through "the Winds," or Wind River Range of Wyoming. But these days, Wyoming’s wind has stirred up both controversy and hope in equal measures.

Wind as the Way Forward

When not thwarting pilots, Wyoming's plentiful wind has an upside. It is a clean and abundant energy source that has the potential to reduce our reliance on petroleum, natural gas and coal. As photographer Showalter put it, “Wyoming and the surrounding western states bear the burden of developing energy responsibly and leaving some of our natural and Western heritage for future generations.”

"LightHawk pilot Mike Conway guided me... to photograph the footprint of wind farms and areas planned for development," said photographer Dave Showalter. "At times we could see wind turbines from foreground to horizon, spinning methodically in world-class wind." photo: Dave Showalter with aerial support from LightHawk

Volunteer pilot Mike Conway (Fort Collins, CO) allowed photographer Dave Showalter to capture aerial scenes from current and proposed sites of large-scale wind farms in south central Wyoming. Images made during this flight in Conway’s Husky airplane will be a central part of Dave’s Sage Spirit book/education and outreach project to advocate for developing energy responsibly in the West. “The Western energy portfolio of oil, natural gas, coal bed methane, geothermal, wind, and solar will be discussed for many years to come; and how we develop today, where we choose to fragment the land, will leave a lasting impact,” says Showalter. “It’s our obligation to challenge assumptions while viewing the West from a landscape perspective; and making images from a small airplane is a great place to start.”

Paving Over the (Sage Grouse) Disco

Harnessing wind isn’t without its controversy though. Birds run into turbines in an avian version of Don Quixote and bats suffer lung damage from sudden drops in air pressure caused by nearby blades. In addition, the service roads, out-buildings and transmission lines needed to support a wind farm can fragment habitat, interfering with migration corridors for pronghorn, elk, and deer and other species.

This infrastructure has also displaced sage grouse leks, the sites of sage grouse courtship dances. Visitors to these lek sites experience a flurry of feather waving, bowing, and sonic booms heard up to three miles away, which is widely considered to be one of the great wildlife spectacles on the continent.

“I was interested in the area ...as I have flown over this part of Wyoming many times and am fascinated by the beauty of it, and disappointed with the way the resource exploration and exploitation has harmed so much of that area,” explains volunteer pilot Mike Conway shown here in his Husky aircraft. photo: Dave Showalter with aerial support from LightHawk

Getting Smart from the Start

Right now, in Wyoming and throughout the US, we have the opportunity to make smart decisions about wind power. LightHawk will continue to donate flights so that the aerial perspective can educate decision-makers and the public to make wind development smart from the start. One way to mitigate some of the negative effects of turbines on wildlife is by planning wind farms away from known concentrations of bird and bat activity, as well as avoiding major migration corridors. And building them away from major view-sheds will also help reduce objections to wind farms.

LightHawk volunteer pilot Bernard Gateau in his vibrant Eurocopter and LightHawk Rockies region program manager Shannon Rochelle (right) allowed passengers Erik Molvar of Biodiversity Conservation Alliance (left) and Jamie Wolf of Wyoming Outdoor Council (middle) to get a landscape-scale perspective on wind development. photo: Eric Nielsen

Volunteer pilots Bernard Gateau (Walden, CO) in his Eurocopter, Jim Grady (Grand Junction, CO) in his Cessna 180, and Larry Swanson (Salt Lake City, UT) in his Cessna 182 recently flew policy-makers and media for Biodiversity Conservation Alliance (BCA) and Wyoming Association of Churches over Wyoming’s Red Desert. These donated flights showed current and proposed oil and gas development, and areas with adjacent wind development proposals. More importantly, they point the way forward by highlighting BCA’s strategy for smart wind development that preserves the Red Desert’s remaining pristine landscapes. By mapping sensitive species, protected areas, important view-sheds, current transmission lines, wind data and other relevant factors, BCA has identified more than four million acres which have commercial wind power potential with minimal environmental impact.

Showalter: "Whatever your vision of the American West, insert 1,000 wind turbines, natural gas wells, pump jacks, open chemical waste pits, roads with heavy trucks, transmission lines, pipelines – industrial zones – and understand that every project, even those with the “green” label, must be challenged and sited with respect for wildlife, migration corridors, recreation, Western heritage, and sustainability. What we do today matters, you bet.” photo: Dave Showalter with aerial support from LightHawk

As the demand for green-labeled energy grows, donated flights will be vital to guiding development of wind power that is affordable both economically as well as ecologically. As LightHawk partner BCA says, “This generation has the opportunity to do wind energy development smart from the start, and the key to successful development will be siting wind power in areas capable of sustaining wind farms... [while at the same time protecting] special landscapes and sensitive wildlife.” Wyoming now has a choice: trample wildlife in a blind march to grab “green” energy, or spin its world-class wind into gold with smart development in the right places.

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