Which Way's the Wind Blowing For the National Parks Conservation Association?

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Joshua Tree National Park in the background | Photo: Alex Ferguson/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Newly deputized Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, best known for her work as CEO of the outdoor equipment chain REI, was also a member of the board of directors of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) until her summons to the Executive Branch. Late last week, NPCA President Tom Kiernan announced he was leaving the organization to helm the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

In an era when many mainstream green groups seem willing to turn a blind eye to wind power development near our national parks, NPCA has been a voice for caution. Now its recent president is paid to advocate for 1,200 wind development companies and a former board member is charged with overseeing an increase in wind turbines on public lands. Will NPCA's nuanced voice be drowned out by the wind?

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ReWire asked NPCA spokesperson Kati Schmidt whether the recent career moves of the group's former brass would impede NPCA's ability to oppose wind projects it felt were ill-sited or ill-planned, especially near national parks. As Schmidt told ReWire:

NPCA's concerns over wind development haven't been limited to the vicinities of national parks, but also extend to broader policy questions. Take, for example, the current move by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to extend the length of take permits for bald and golden eagles under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act from 5 years to 30 years, an issue ReWire has covered in some depth.In mid-2012, NPCA submitted a firmly worded letter opposing the 30-year permit notion, which said in part;

By contrast, AWEA's comments on the proposed rule change essentially said that the six-fold extension of the length of take permits didn't go far enough to make life easy for wind developers, because FWS was planning to reserve the right to modify permits and impose mitigation requirements if wind installations killed more eagles than expected. From AWEA's July, 2012 comment letter:

A number of existing and proposed wind developments are in the vicinity of National Parks in the California Desert and nearby. Aside from the sprawling San Gorgonio Pass wind area at the west end of Joshua Tree National Park, the Interior Department just green-lighted the Searchlight Wind Project wedged between the Mojave National Preserve and the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Proposed wind projects dot the northern periphery of the Mojave Preserve, including a proposal by Oak Creek to build turbines in the Castle Mountains area and a still-active testing permit issued to Element Power in 2010 for the narrow Mountain Pass corridor. A hybrid solar-wind project is in the planning stages for the Silurian Valley between the Preserve and the southern end of Death Valley. Farther afield, the 150-megawatt Spring Valley Wind Farm occupies a spot near the northern end of Great Basin National Park. National Parks and wind development come into potential conflict as far across the country as Rhode Island, where a proposed offshore wind installation has raised concerns about the effect on its historic South East Lighthouse on Block Island.

Throughout its history, the NPCA has often advocated for defending our National Parks when it would have been either inappropriate or impolitic for the National Park Service to do so. That's been especially true in the California desert in the last few years, as NPCA staff have often found themselves raising concerns about projects like the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, a massive industrial facility built on the doorstep of the Mojave National Preserve, that major environmental organizations seemed all too willing to let slide by without substantive challenges.

It's important to note that that defense of California desert national parks took place on Tom Kiernan's watch and under his management. One could reasonably argue that hiring a proven defender of protected landscapes is a step in the right direction for AWEA. "Tom has demonstrated a strong commitment to and deep love for National Parks as NPCA President for the last 15 years," says David Lamfrom, NPCA's California Desert Senior Program Manager. "I think he's very likely to bring that commitment to his work at AWEA."

Of course, there's a limit to how much environmental savvy one can expect from any trade association: they exist to promote the financial interests of their members. That's why it's important that environmental groups continue to counter the interests of business as usual.

It may well be that the new prominence in the wind industry of two former high-ranking officials of the NPCA has no effect at all on the group's trajectory. But the real issue here goes far beyond NPCA, Kiernan, and Secretary Jewell.

It's the whole "stakeholder" issue that's relevant here. Environmental groups decide that keeping a seat at the bargaining table is of consummate importance. Groups that are willing to constrain their positions to fit within official parameters are the ones deemed to have sufficient gravitas to earn a seat at that table. Advocating that wind developers strive to kill five percent fewer eagles per megawatt of wind turbine capacity is deemed a realistic and professional position. Saying that wind turbine developers should be subject to the same penalties for killing eagles as any yahoo with a sixpack and a rifle is beyond the pale.

The revolving door for staff that connects green groups and business and government is an indication that the missions of all three constituencies have converged more than they should, and that means that the green groups have become more concerned about keeping that seat at the table than they are about watchdogging the corporations and agencies with whom they're sitting.

And there's no faster way to get a watchdog to wag its tail than offering a few table scraps.

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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