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Editorial: Stimulating Conservation

March 1, 2009

It may be cold comfort to struggling alternative-energy entrepreneurs, but it is now close to a done deal that investment in wind and solar energy will increase dramatically in coming years. Although many sectors are clamoring for federal financial assistance in these troubled economic times, the administration and Congress seem agreed that low-carbon energy sources need boosts. Not only will these energy alternatives reduce US dependence on foreign oil, but they also promise to provide new jobs. Moreover, pressure for a federal carbon tax, or some similar measure, is likely to be ultimately successful in Congress, which points to a rosy long-term competitive outlook.

For these reasons, planning for high-voltage transmission lines, wind farms, and solar power stations is moving ahead apace. Together with other components of the economic stimulus package—repairs to roads and to water and sewerage systems, in particular—they could bring about the most rapid and far-reaching changes in the US landscape in several decades.

Few environmental scientists are likely to oppose moves toward a smaller carbon footprint, but nobody should be naïve about the difficult trade-offs that these huge changes will entail. Wind farms make noise and kill a lot of birds and bats. Solar power facilities disrupt the natural environment over large areas. The high-voltage transmission lines that will be needed to transport power across the continent to the mostly coastal areas where demand is highest are unsightly and can be barriers to the movement of wildlife. Disputes over priorities and values in conservation can be expected to reemerge with a vengeance.

The plaintive story Christin Pruett and her coauthors tell in the article that begins on p. 257 exemplifies the kind of dilemma that planners will face. Numbers of the lesser prairie-chicken have declined drastically as the bird's habitat in the southern Great Plains has become fragmented by long lines of windmills. The wind energy boom in the plains, current economic difficulties notwithstanding, is bad news for this bird, which graces this month's cover.

Put bluntly, within a few years, the lesser prairie-chicken may live only in zoos because the windmills disrupt the necessary connectivity between dwindling populations. Pruett and her colleagues propose a series of measures that could stave off the species' extinction in the wild. But whether the necessary measures can be implemented in time must be open to doubt. Pruett and colleagues suggest, among other things, that the whirlwind pace of wind-energy development be slowed. But that course of action would also incur ecological costs.

Biologists are by now reasonably well equipped with concepts that might shed light on such decisions, and the article by Gary Luck and colleagues, which starts on p. 223, gives examples of how economic arguments on behalf of species and ecologically functional groups can be marshaled. Such efforts can make a crucial contribution that can support legal protections. How much of the needed research can be done within a pressing timetable is another matter. There would seem to be work opportunities aplenty for biologists willing to enter the disputed fields.

Timothy M. Beardsley
Editor in Chief

BioScience 59: 195

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