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Bill Berry: Organized opposition can be effective

The Capital Times

STEVENS POINT - A friend who lives in Wisconsin's gorgeous Driftless region reached out the other day in a worried mind. She was concerned about a proposed industrial wind project that would stretch wind turbines across hundreds of miles, visible from Madison suburbs to the bluffs of the Mississippi River.

The Driftless region, sometimes called Coulee Country, is revered for its rounded hills and steep valleys. It's among the world's most distinctive geologic regions, a vast area that the glaciers missed in parts of four states. Its beauty is magical, almost beyond comparison in the Midwest.

Unfortunately, the region and its residents are being buffeted by several landscape-scale projects that have divided neighbors and ignited citizen and environmental groups.

It's in the sights of a proposed massive power transmission line that would stretch from Dubuque, Iowa, to Madison. Then there's the huge industrial hog operation proposed for Crawford County, overlooking the storied Kickapoo River. Now, as my friend fears, residents of Iowa and Lafayette counties and well beyond are facing the prospect of what could be the second-largest industrial wind system in the Midwest, with the possibility of 172 3.5-megawatt wind turbines about 650 feet tall.

If the land could express emotions, Coulee Country would be crying.

Look, to some degree, we're all part of this great big machine. We are the consumers whose needs are met, sometimes with dire consequences to other humans and the natural world. Even when we try to do better, we create new social conflicts.

The big Driftless wind project is proposed by Pattern LLC, a Canadian-owned multinational corporation. Its officials say the region is perfect for wind generation, and they're probably right, as though that's the only consideration. They're out recruiting long-term lease rights from landowners, and the fear is if they get enough, there will be thin margin for public input.

The future of this and other possible wind projects in the region is tied to the aforementioned high-voltage line that has gotten its share of headlines, thanks to organized opposition. American Transmission Company, backed by power companies that are co-owners, says the line is needed for power distribution. Opponents say not so fast. The state Public Service Commission approved the line late last year, but opponents sued, and federal Judge William Conley partially denied the Public Service Commission's motion to dismiss the case brought by the Environmental Law & Policy Center on behalf of the Driftless Area Land Conservancy and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

Wind and solar energy are thrusting forward as we rightfully try to reduce burning coal and other non-renewables to address climate change. Both will be part of our energy future, and both can be good if carefully sited. Both are also controversial and can have massive footprints. But the towering wind turbines do so across whole landscapes and have produced more concerns about human health than solar arrays. Wind projects have led to pitched conflicts elsewhere in Wisconsin and across the country. In a couple of cases in Wisconsin, opponents have managed to link wind projects to human health concerns, especially the effects of noise from turbines on humans.

As for the big hog operation proposed in Crawford County, opponents have asked the Department of Natural Resources to conduct a full environmental impact statement. That's unusual. The DNR doesn't usually do such extensive reviews on CAFOs. The operation would house the equivalent of nearly 3,000 animal units (in other terms, 8,160 hogs of various sizes) and generate more than 9 million gallons of liquid manure annually. It would apply the manure on 1,295 acres. Opponents worry about human health, water quality and odor. And some think this will open the gates for more hog CAFOs to ooze across the state line from Iowa, which is saturated with them.

Indeed, it's a big machine, and we're all part of it - sometimes at the expense of beloved places like Coulee Country. One thing is clear, though - the people affected by these kinds of projects have voices, and they can be powerful if they are organized and persistent. There are plenty of examples for that.


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