The elegant, lazy motion of wind turbines once appealed to Eleanor Tillinghast. Generating energy takes a heavy toll on the natural world, so it stood to reason that Tillinghast, a committed environmentalist, once thought wind farms were a good thing, even though she knew little about them. The Hoosac Wind project, the 20-turbine wind farm proposed for the tiny hill towns of Florida and Monroe in the Berkshires, changed her mind.
After careful study, Tillinghast concluded the environmental cost of wind power was too high. She isn’t just upset that the turbines would spoil mountain views; she fears that building access roads, transmission lines and related buildings would destroy wetland habitats and level mountain ridgelines, not to mention posing risks to birds and bats. All for a minuscule amount of electricity that she believes does not begin to address the state’s electricity needs.
“I’ve become more and more conservative about the environment,” says Tillinghast, president and co-founder of Green Berkshires, a regional environmental advocacy group that has backed court challenges to Hoosac Wind over the past six years. “Leave it alone is the way I’m looking at it. Find other ways of solving the problem before you destroy the environment.”
Tillinghast is in many ways a classic environmental activist, a product of the movement unleashed by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which documented the toxic effects of pesticides on birds and other living things. Green Berkshires may be a tiny outpost not known outside western Massachusetts, but it follows in the tradition of national land conservation groups like the 118-year-old Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which was founded shortly before the first Earth Day 40 years ago to fight pollution battles in court.
Where those groups once operated with an “us-against-them” mindset as they fought to protect open spaces and battled corporate polluters, Tillinghast and her group are operating in a world where climate change blurs the lines between us and them. Many policymakers and environmentalists now believe some disruption to the natural landscape is an acceptable cost in seeking dramatic reductions in carbon emissions, which they consider a more ominous immediate threat to the planet.
President Obama, who won the support of environmental groups by promising to champion legislation designed to dent climate change, is supporting the development of carbon-free nuclear power plants, even though no one has yet solved the problem of radioactive waste disposal. Gov. Deval Patrick, meanwhile, wants to scatter wind turbines across Nantucket Sound and the Berkshires as part of an effort to produce 20 percent of the Bay State’s electricity with renewable sources.
Henry Lee, who directs the Environment and Natural Resources Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, sees a growing split within the environmental movement between the advocates who see climate as the dominant issue and those who subscribe to land conservation as their guiding principle. “You’ve got this tension,” he says, “between organizations that focused on pollution in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and now on climate, and the land organizations who are saying, ‘We don’t want to see our mountain tops with windmills, we don’t want to see our deserts full of transmission lines, we don’t want to see our coastline with thousands of energy-generating facilities either with wind or tidal power.’”
In a state like Massachusetts, which is determined to become a national leader in green jobs and clean technologies, land conservationists like Tillinghast increasingly look like they are going down the up escalator. Their rigid stance is out of sync with efforts by other environmental groups trying to find common ground in the fight against climate change. “Being an environmentalist means having a real capacity to think about complexity,” says Laura Johnson, president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which backs Cape Wind and has offered conditional support for the Hoosac Wind project. “There are lots of gray areas and tough choices.”
On a crystal clear March day at a lookout point in the mountains above North Adams, the wind is blowing strong enough to push you around a bit. It’s easy to see why the developers of Hoosac Wind, named for the mountain range that lies at the northern end of the Berkshires near the Vermont border, selected this area as the site for their 30 megawatt wind farm. After offshore locations, the northern Berkshire peaks are some of the windiest places in Massachusetts, making them prime targets for commercial wind developments.
The region is one of the most rural and sparsely populated areas of the Bay State. The rolling green hills, mountain streams, and trails attract people who like to ski, hike, fish, and hunt. The villages that run along the ridges have a “blink or you’ll miss it” quality, with only a few homes, a town hall, a post office or a volunteer fire station visible from quiet, two-lane roads.
The wind project’s developers propose to put up nine turbines on Crum Hill, which spans the towns of Florida and Monroe. Another 11 turbines would be located on the Bakke Mountain ridge in Florida. The turbines and plant buildings would be located on a combination of private and municipal lands. In addition, areas in Monroe State Forest along the proposed transmission line would have to be cleared of vegetation.
The turbines would stand nearly 340 feet high from the base to the tip of a vertical blade (the blades themselves are more than 250 feet in diameter), or 60 feet lower than the height of each of the Harbor Towers buildings along the downtown Boston waterfront. Six of the turbines are required by the Federal Aviation Administration to have lights.
While the turbines will dramatically change the look of the two hills, environmental concerns have focused primarily on the damage caused during construction of the wind farm. According to a state document, roughly 73 acres of forested land would have to be cleared and graded for construction staging areas, vehicle turnarounds and turbine delivery and assembly areas. The plant would also include two permanent meteorological towers and a maintenance building. Some four miles of roads would have to be built capable of accommodating heavy construction equipment.
The litigation that has tied up the project in court has focused on wetlands permits and the harm to plants and wildlife caused by stream crossings. At press time, the case was on appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court.
While the lawsuit was filed by local residents backed by Green Berkshires, the wind project has overwhelming support in Florida and Monroe. About 70 percent of Florida residents attending a town meeting supported the proposal in 2005. State Sen. Benjamin Downing, who represents the region, says where people have had the chance to vote on wind power projects in the Berkshires (the towns of Savoy and Hancock are also considering industrial wind farms), they’ve supported them. Downing, a Pittsfield Democrat, says residents hope the projects will eventually lead to lower electricity prices and spur economic development.
Ownership of the Hoosac project has changed hands several times, but the current developer, the Spanish-owned Iberdrola Renewables, one of the world’s largest producers of wind power, plans to spend roughly $106 million building the wind farm. There will be only a handful of permanent jobs, but Florida and Monroe expect to receive ongoing payments from the project. The company projects that the plant will generate enough electricity to power about 13,000 average Massachusetts homes and cut annual carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 72,000 tons.
Kristen Goland, Iberdrola’s senior permits manager, says she has never seen such strong support from a state or a community. One of the project’s supporters is Jim Pedro, who manages the Whitcomb Summit Resort in Florida, which has a spectacular view of Crum Hill. Pedro doesn’t want a “zillion” turbines, but says a “few here and there” would look better than a traditional fossil fuel plant. “I’m totally pro-wind,” he says.
Green is good
The slogan “think global and act local” sums up the popular view of the environmental movement. For Ian Bowles, the secretary of energy and environment, acting locally means putting up wind turbines in the Berkshires to help reduce the use of fossil fuels and curb greenhouse gases on a larger scale.
He also says it’s a matter of fairness, since most of the state’s fossil fuel power plants were built a generation ago, generally in poorer parts of the state like Fall River, Salem, Everett, Sandwich, and Holyoke. Those plants, he says, have driven down property values in those communities and contributed to higher rates of pediatric asthma. By contrast, Bowles says, the impact of a “modest wind farm” in the Berkshires is “negligible.”
Bowles notes Hoosac Wind has the support of local residents as well as state environmental officials who have reviewed the project looking for evidence of significant environmental harm. He says building wind farms in the Berkshires and in Nantucket Sound is part of a sound environmental strategy, one that’s supported by most environmentalists.
“I don’t think of anti-wind advocates or activists as being environmentalists,” he says. “I think of them as being special issue, basically NIMBY, folks.”
NIMBY or not, the litigation around Hoosac Wind and Cape Wind hasn’t helped the state’s bid to attract clean energy companies. Paul Gaynor, the president of First Wind, a Boston–based company that develops, owns, and operates wind farms in Hawaii, Maine, New York, Utah and Vermont, says renewable energy companies see the potential for a “very litigious experience” in Massachusetts. By contrast, he says, “you can be welcomed with arms wide open in Texas.” (Only now is First Wind in the very early stages of considering a site in Brimfield.)
To set up statewide siting standards and streamline the appeals process, Bowles is pushing legislation that would reduce project permitting times to nine to 18 months. Facilities that produce two megawatts of electricity or less could move even faster. The bill, which passed the Senate and was awaiting action in the House when this issue went to press, has the support of many of the state’s leading environmental organizations, including the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Nature Conservancy, the Environmental League of Massachusetts, and Environment Massachusetts.
Johnson, the Mass Audubon president, says New England’s largest conservation organization occupies a middle ground on most siting issues. She says the organization supports establishing safeguards to protect local habitats and wildlife while allowing appropriate renewable projects to move forward. After years of avian studies, for example, Mass Audubon gave its support to Cape Wind. It has also expressed conditional support for the Hoosac project, but has called on the developer to address issues such as how it plans to monitor bird and bat populations after construction.
Younger environmentalists, alarmed by climate change, seem to have less patience for the siting battles. Alyssa Pandolfi, in her third year of environmental science studies at Northeastern University, is a member of the Husky Energy Action Team, which looks for ways to get students and university departments to reduce their energy usage. She gets frustrated with environmentalists who are more concerned about blocking wind farms than they are about greenhouse gases, acid rain, or the chronic diseases that affect people in coal mining states like West Virginia and Kentucky. “What’s a wind turbine on the horizon if we are killing people [with] our current energy system?” she asks.
Craig Altemose, a graduate student at Harvard and the coordinator of Students for a Just and Stable Future, lobbies on Beacon Hill for a task force to research how the state can move toward 100 percent clean energy statewide in the next decade. He believes that there is no legitimate way to oppose wind projects based on their impact on the environment.
“Every place that you try to preserve today is going to be a different place a hundred years from now if we don’t stop putting carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” he says.
Eleanor Tillinghast began thinking of herself as an environmentalist 25 years ago when she moved to Mount Washington, a small town in the southwestern corner of the state, from Washington, D.C., where she worked in public relations. When we meet in a Friendly’s parking lot in Lee before setting off to look at some of the proposed wind farm sites, the brown-haired, 53-year-old is dressed in black and driving a Jeep Cherokee. She apologizes for the SUV, admitting that she uses the car for hauling sports gear and bad winter weather driving. “I [also] drive a Prius,” she says, smiling. “I don’t do it to be politically correct. I do it to cut down on my impact.”
Tillinghast grew up in Brookline and visited Mount Washington on family vacations, but it wasn’t until development threatened her new community that she began to feel protective about the region. Hearing about a proposal in the late 1980s to build a destination resort in the Mount Washington State Forest, she rallied the town to block it. In 2004, she went on to found Green Berkshires with her husband, Morgan Bulkeley Jr., and several others. Tillinghast declines to say how much money she has contributed to the organization over the years, other than to say “a lot.”
She also cofounded the Massachusetts League of Environmental Voters and serves as a corporate trustee of the Trustees of Reservations. In 2008, she was named Sportswoman of the Year (marking the first time ever a woman received the award) for her conservation work by the Berkshire County League of Sportsmen. Despite her public profile, she refused to be photographed for this story, an acknowledgement that her anti-wind stance isn’t popular with everyone in the area.
Doug Foy, the state’s former top environmental official and a past president of the Conservation Law Foundation, joined forces with Tillinghast nearly a decade ago on several campaigns in western Massachusetts, including a fight to prevent the construction of the Greylock Glen resort at the foot of Mt. Greylock. She later served on the foundation’s Massachusetts board for five years. Foy says Tillinghast’s advocacy for local interests makes her a textbook example of why a local environmentalist is a force to be reckoned with. “She is tough as nails and she takes no prisoners,” he says.
Although Tillinghast is known for her opposition to the Hoosac project, she doesn’t object to wind turbines for residential, farm or business use like the ones at Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock or at the Williams Stone Co., an East Otis building materials company. She also believes wind farms are appropriate on the wind-rich plains of the Dakotas.
But she fears most of the 2000 megawatts of wind power the Bay State wants to build will be located in the Berkshires, including some on public lands. She says Berkshires vistas would be ruined, along with a significant amount of forest habitat. Hoosac Wind, she points out, would negatively affect 12 mountain streams by killing protected plant life and endangering the native brook trout that depend on streams to be “cold and clean.” In short, she says, the proposed stream crossings would completely change the wildlife habitats of those wetlands.
For Tilllinghast, the wind project’s environmental cost is far greater than the economic and environmental benefits. By her own calculations, Massachusetts could save more electricity by sending every household an energy efficient light bulb than could be produced by all of the state’s proposed wind projects in the Berkshires.
The Green Berkshires president dismisses Bowles’s characterization of opponents of wind farms as NIMBY activists. “Ian Bowles has made it a career for the last few years of minimizing the importance of this project and trivializing the concerns of the people who are involved,” she says. “I have a lot of respect for a lot of the things he’s done,” she adds, “but we have an honest disagreement on the significance of these [wind] projects and the impacts on the environment.”
But Tillinghast’s position on wind is also at odds with a number of Bay State environmental groups that back legislation to speed up wind siting. According to Tillinghast, the legislation sidesteps both local control and state environmental laws and is a backdoor maneuver to open up public lands to wind farms. For her, the wind siting bill exemplifies a growing divide between environmental groups like Green Berkshires and what she calls “the Beacon Hill” environmental groups. “They don’t represent the issues that we focus on most at the local level,” she says.
The Berkshire Eagle has sided in editorials with Tillinghast on issues like cleaning up the polluted Housatonic River. “She is a committed environmentalist,” says Bill Everhart, the newspaper’s editorial page editor. But he seems to struggle with a way to characterize her stand on Hoosac Wind, which the paper has strongly supported. “Even though she is not a NIMBY, she is doing the work of NIMBYism, perhaps inadvertently. That is exactly what I think her wind stand amounts to.”
Such criticism, whether from newspapers or her fellow environmentalists, doesn’t faze her. For Tillinghast, there aren’t any climate change tradeoffs that will make her a wind power booster, at least not where the forests and the wildlife of the Berkshires are concerned. “We are destroying mountains in West Virginia, so we should be destroying mountains up here?” Tillinghast asks. “I don’t agree with that.”