Charles Komanoff


In the Wind

Environmental activist's legacy would include support for windmills in the Adirondacks

by Charles Komanoff

Published on Sunday, September 18, 2005 by the Albany Times Union (New York)

David Brower, the 20th century's leading champion of wilderness, died in 2000 at age 88. The re-founder of the Sierra Club, creator of Friends of the Earth, mountaineer and conservationist extraordinary -- our latter-day John Muir -- didn't live to see his movement bitterly divided over the proposed siting of wind turbines in Nantucket Sound, the Berkshires and the Adirondacks.

Proponents argue that wind farms protect the environment and help preserve Earth's climate by substituting clean energy for polluting fossil fuels. Opponents say the turbines intrude on coastal and mountain landscapes whose breezes attract wind power developers.

Pondering these trade-offs, I find myself wondering, "What would Dave do?" To many of us in the environmental movement, Dave was not just a visionary leader he was something approaching a demigod.

Dave was physically imposing -- rugged, keen-sighted, seemingly carved from mountains, "monumental," as a recent documentary on his life and times is titled. Everything about him was larger-than-life: a string of Sierra Nevada first ascents in the 1930s, training the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division in World War II, charismatic leadership in expanding the national park system in the 1950s and 1960s, continually reinventing the environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

Dave would have understood both sides of today's wind power conflict, and perhaps alone would have had the stature to synthesize, if not reconcile, the opposing positions.

Wild nature was the wellspring of Brower's lifetime of visionary environmental advocacy. He meant every word of Thoreau's epigram, "In wildness is the preservation of the world," when he made it the title of one of his Sierra Club "exhibit format" books that steeped Americans in the wonders of the natural world. The encroachment of windmills onto coastlines and ridge lines would have troubled him deeply.

But in countless speeches, Dave also recited Thoreau's plaint, "What good is a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?" Put another way, what good is a windmill-free sanctuary if the whole Earth is ravaged by ruinous climate change that the windmills could have helped avert?

Brower saw himself, accurately, as a descendant of John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club a half-century before Brower retooled it into an environmental powerhouse. "When we try to pick out anything by itself," Muir wrote and Brower frequently quoted, "we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

Having mastered the intricacies of power grids in his epic battles against dams on the Colorado River, Dave would have recognized in an instant how more windmills are hitched to fewer coal-fired generators, as each kilowatt-hour more produced from the wind allows a kilowatt-hour less of production from conventional power stations. He would have understood that windmills, though tall and ungainly, are at least tall and clean, unlike smokestacks.

Which brings us to the first wind power project proposed for the Adirondack Mountains. Barton Mines, a privately held concern based in Johnsburg, wants to build 10 wind turbines on 1,700 acres it formerly mined outside North Creek in Warren County in the southern Adirondacks.

Opponents decry the aesthetic impact of 400-foot structures jutting from exposed ridges as well as the precedent of admitting this new form of development inside the Blue Line. Project proponents point to the larger environmental benefits windmills confer by displacing fossil fuels. They also note that the mine already has most of the requisite access roads and transmission lines, allowing new construction to be held to a minimum. The site is also close enough to the popular Gore Mountain ski center that the backdrop of many views of the spinning blades would be ski runs and chairlifts -- much more intrusive than windmills, in my opinion -- rather than unbroken forest.

But what I think might have impressed Brower most about the Barton wind farm is the opportunity it offers to redeem the injury caused by decades of garnet mining. Here I recall Dave's fondness for the California poet Robinson Jeffers. Both the title and the text of Brower's Sierra Club book about the Big Sur Coast, "Not Man Apart," are from Jeffers, and the Friends of the Earth newsmagazine bore that name as well. The Jeffers poems excerpted in the Big Sur book include classics such as "Rock and Hawk" and "Fire on the Hills" but also the lesser-known "Bixby's Landing," which begins:

They burned lime on the hill and dropped it down
here in an iron car
On a long cable; here the ships warped in
And took their loads from the engine, the water
is deep to the cliff.

Just so. At Barton Mines pneumatic rock drills tore garnets from the earth. There thundering Terex and Mack trucks delivered the ore to jaw crushers that split it into small stones.

The laborers are gone, but what a good multitude
Is here in return: the rich-lichened rock, the
rose-tipped stone-crop, the constant
Ocean's voices, the cloud-lighted space.
The kilns are cold on the hill but here in the
rust of the broken boiler
Quick lizards lighten, and a rattle-snake flows
Down the cracked masonry, over the crumbled
fire-brick. In the rotting timbers
And roofless platforms all the free companies
Of windy grasses have root and make seed...

The laborers are gone as well from Barton's Gore Mountain Mine along with the jobs that Adirondack towns badly need. In their place, the windmills would provide new jobs building and maintaining the new planet-saving infrastructure of renewable energy. The windmill blades, drawing energy from Adirondack air, would allow Jeffers' "windy grasses" to remain rooted atop rich carboniferous strata in Wyoming and West Virginia that need never be torn open for their coal.

Wine-hearted solitude, our mother the wilderness,
Men's failures are often as beautiful as men's
triumphs, but your returnings
Are even more precious than your first presence.

Brower spent his later years advocating the idea of restoring Earth. He saw that so much of our planet had been worked over, and so little left alone, that traditional wilderness protection was no longer sufficient. Restoring what had been violated was now imperative as well.

The Barton wind project can serve both pieces of Dave's vision: it can create clean energy that will allow wild places harboring coal, oil and gas to remain untrammeled; and it can undo the damage from mining garnets by putting windmills in the mine's very footprint.

I knew Dave Brower, not well, but well enough to believe with all my heart that he would have grasped the greater good in having this wind farm take root on Gore Mountain. Let Barton Mines' returnings to these acres be more precious than its first presence. Let all who cherish wildness and the Adirondacks honor the fullness of Dave's legacy and help the Barton wind project go forward.

Charles Komanoff, an economist and environmental activist from New York City, spends summers in the Adirondacks. More of his writing and the full text of "Bixby's Landing" are at

© 2005 Albany Times Union