The New York Times Vs. the Condor

Did this baleful bird just read the paper? | Photo: FWS/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The New York Times this week covered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to allow a Mojave wind facility to kill a condor, and among other problems the story contained a howler of a misstatement about wind development in the Mojave Desert.

The Times piece, Turbine Plans Unnerve Fans of Condors in California by reporter Felicity Barringer, appeared May 25 -- one day after FWS's Biological Opinion (BiOp) on Terra-Gen's Alta East Wind facility became public. That BiOp essentially allows Alta East to accidentally kill an Endangered California condor without criminal penalty.

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Aside from the Times' usual characterization of environmental activists opposed to FWS' decision as worried or distressed -- for some reason, enviros in the Times are never "angry," "determined," or "stubborn" -- the piece seems to present the usual "view from nowhere," as media critic Jay Rosen calls it.

That's at first glance. Dig deeper, and you see what gives every impression of being stealth editorializing by the reporter. The chance of a condor dying at the Alta East wind facility is described, with no citation, as "slim" -- contradicting FWS's own fairly well-documented assessment. Existing turbines are described as being "at the edge of the birds' range," with no mention of the fact that the condors have been expanding their range steadily over the last decade.

Oddly, Barringer says right out that FWS has no clear reason to bring up condor mortality at Alta East in the first place:

Barringer could have taken advantage of a resource quite close at hand: the FWS BiOp, which states:

FWS has made it pretty clear that condors are at risk, not just at Alta East but throughout the Tehachapi wind development area, because they're found in increasing numbers in places where people either have or plan to put wind turbines. And it's not just the flaming radical environmentalists at FWS that think so. That concern is shared by the Kern County Board of Supervisors as well, which body is not exactly composed of Earth First! activists.

The origin of Interior's decision on the take permit is in fact manifestly clear. The origin of the Times' assertion? Not so much.

The most problematic part of the piece was this passage, in which Barringer completely misrepresents the course of wind development in the western Mojave:

This depends on your definition of "long." If it's measured in a unit longer than weeks, Barringer's assertion doesn't hold up. There have been wind turbines in the area for decades, but for a long time they were essentially confined to the ridgetop between Tehachapi and Mojave, mainly in the Sand Canyon and Cameron Road area, with later development along Oak Creek Canyon Road.

As it happens, I've visited the area frequently since 1989, and for most of the time since then the pace of wind development in the area was pretty slack -- at least as seen from the highway and downtown Mojave. I was in Mojave in March for the first time in two years, and the expansion of wind development in the area is nothing short of staggering. Ten years ago a few turbines were just going in at the base of the Tehachapi mountains on either side of Oak Creek Canyon Road, several miles from town. Now, the view westward from town is filled with wind turbines, their red warning lights dominating the town's night sky.

You can watch the development happen via Google EarthEngine's animation of Landsat images from 1984 to 2012. The town of Tehachapi is in the upper left corner of the frame, with Mojave in the middle right. The ridge between the two had turbines on it in 1984. Starting about 1989, turbines started going in along the north side of Oak Creek Canyon Road: you can see the thin tracery of access roads in a diagonal pattern as they go in year by year.

In the last three years, as you can tell from the sudden explosion of access roads in the lower right hand corner of the frame starting in 2010, the square mileage of wind development shown in this view more or less doubled. And this view covers just a fraction of the Tehachapi wind area. Here's a larger-scale map of that area:

The Tehachapi Wind Development Area is outlined in green. We've overlain Manhattan Island in red to provide a bit of perspective on Barringer's claim. That pink splotch darkening to purple is where condors were active in 2011.

As it happens, the area in the map that was covered by wind turbines in 1989 was roughly the size of Manhattan. Calling wind development since 2010 "like erecting a building in Midtown Manhattan" is utterly misleading. What's happening in the Tehachapi wind area would be more like expanding Manhattan's skyscraper district throughout Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Westchester, with "buildings" midrange in height between the Statue of Liberty and the UN Secretariat Building.

Barringer's claim amounts to editorializing in the guise of reporting. We here at ReWire have nothing against editorializing: we do so with relative abandon. We don't hide the fact that we place a high value on wildlife in energy development decisions. But there's a difference between writing explicit commentary -- either labeled as such up front or marked off clearly in the text -- and sliding unmarked commentary into a news piece. Basing that stealth commentary on factual errors only compounds the problem.

Misrepresentation like this ought to concern even die-hard advocates of wind power development. If we don't honestly account for the potential risk to wildlife of our energy development strategies, we will find ourselves facing serious regret over the choices we make today.

Which would truly be unnerving.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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