Wind, timber and hypocrisy in the Pacific Northwest

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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Writing in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Robert Bryce described the toll that the nation’s burgeoning wind farms have taken on endangered birds. At one site alone — Altamont in Alameda County, California — 2,400 raptors, including 70 golden eagles, have been killed by the giant whirling blades. In 2009 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated the national death toll from wind turbines at 440,000 birds that year alone.

That seems like a lot of birds, particularly for those of us in the Pacific Northwest, where a once-vibrant timber economy has been devastated in a failing effort to save the spotted owl. Of course, we’re losing a lot of birds to wind farms as well. One 2010 estimate put the annual death toll in Oregon and Washington at 6,500 birds and 3,000 bats, but that seems low if the Fish and Wildlife estimate is correct.

But whatever the number, there is no controversy that birds, including birds listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, are being killed in significant numbers by the wind turbines. Though there is concern among environmentalists and government officials alike, thus far these bird kills have been accepted as a cost of advancing alternative energy.

I’ve got to imagine that, for an unemployed logger in rural Oregon or the owner of a shuttered lumber bill, there is something not quite right about this picture.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of endangered birds are being “taken,” in the parlance of the Endangered Species Act, yet the government presses ahead with plans, subsidies and tax breaks to expand an industry that cannot begin to compete on price and will never provide a reliable source of energy. The dramatic revival of natural gas as a cheap source of energy makes wind power even less competitive going forward. Yet there is no sign that the Obama administration will rethink its commitment to wind power. (There is, however, resistance in Congress to renewing the Wind Production Tax Credit that provides significant subsidies to the wind power industry.)

Meanwhile, the Northwest timber industry is in its third decade of economic desperation due largely to the closing of millions of acres of forests to harvesting — all in the interest of the survival of the northern spotted owl. Some will be quick to insist that the timber industry’s travails are due to the economic downturn and the associated slump in housing construction, but the truth is that when the housing market comes back, most of the lumber will be supplied from places other than the Pacific Northwest. Yet there are few places on the planet with the productive capacities of Northwest forests.

So this is the picture: On the one hand we have an uneconomic wind energy industry being promoted and heavily subsidized by the government with the full knowledge that it is killing thousands of endangered birds and hundreds of thousands of other flying critters. On the other hand we have a moribund timber industry shut down by government in a failing effort to save a few hundred spotted owls. And because the spotted owl continues to decline in numbers despite the millions of acres of forest set aside as owl habitat, the government now plans to shoot hundreds of barred owls that compete with the spotted owl. (Barred owls also interbreed with spotted owls, but never mind what that might imply for the spotted owl’s status as an endangered species.)

Is there any wonder that people sometimes have their doubts about the effectiveness of the federal government?

Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.