Further Forest Windiness

A softwood plantation in its first year - 2013 -
A softwood plantation in its first year – 2013 –

It has been interesting to read through the feedback from my recent post about windfarms and forestry, particularly since it has raised some interesting new ideas about the imbalance between forestry and renewable development.

From a landowner’s perspective, the various voices from within the renewables world have spent the past ten years dangling enormous sums of money before our eyes in return for the prospect of development. Several developers have gone so far as to say that we would be offered “silly money” to go ahead with development and that we would be “more than compensated” for our pains. Massive sums are allocated to mitigation work, and one company explained that it was sometimes “hard to get rid” of funding for habitat management plans, so copiously were they loaded with cash.

I might have been trying to stir the pot when I suggested that the foresters should have paid compensation for the harm they did, but in a world where there was essentially no precedent to compensate or mitigate the damage caused by industrialisation in the uplands, where did the renewables companies get the idea that they were obliged to cough up?

A great deal of the anti-windfarm impetus comes from the aesthetics of turbines themselves. Locals don’t like looking at them, and there is a perceived (although probably rather shakily proven) threat to tourism in a countryside littered with whirling blades. The surprising thing is that the kind of commercial plantations installed over the past forty years are every bit as aesthetically offensive as turbines. They lie in geometrically perfect blocks across undulating hillsides; great corrugated slabs of identical green trees are hideous to look upon, but despite initial revulsion, the general public seems to be able to forgive them as the years go by and the trees gradually insinuate themselves into the landscape.

Many of my friends come to visit from the city and they see nothing wrong with lines and rows of sitka spruce far off to horizon. They just see trees, and they assume that the collective noun for trees is “forest”. Our baseline perception of normality changes with every generation, and having grown up surrounded by plantations, I accepted them until it dawned on me precisely what the cost had been to host these devastating timber factories.

So maybe it’s just the fact that turbines are so clearly unnatural that means that the entire renewables sector is set up to pour money like oil over troubled waters. The quantity of money offered to us as landowners has sometimes been obscene; far out of proportion with the impact that the turbines would actually cause us. I’ve said this to the renewable companies, and they have nodded in agreement.

This is such an extraordinarily different approach to effecting land use change in the uplands that it takes some getting used to. The foresters came from a system which rewarded willing landowners with tax breaks and left neighbouring communities to “go hang”. Now the renewables companies offer to spew money all over entire communities in exchange for comparatively slight, relatively temporary aesthetic damage. If the prevailing atmosphere had not been so embarrassingly opulent, we might almost have felt like the renewables “system” was (at least in part) predicated on apology – “we’re sorry about the turbines, but here’s some cash to smooth things over”. Interestingly on the flip side, I met an undergraduate engineer at University who believed that landowners should get nothing for the turbines on their land – hosting renewables was a reward in itself, and that landowners should be environmentally conscientious enough to do the “right thing” without any financial incentive. I wonder what happened to her.

To their credit, the foresters now do spend a huge amount of (public) money on fixing the damage they caused, and while I would rather they hadn’t done it in the first place, there are some refreshing signs of progress. But it is interesting to consider that these two industries boast many of the same benefits: they bring employment to remote areas and they promise a more environmentally sensitive future – and yet in terms of financial mitigation for damage caused, it could be argued that foresters offer nothing and renewables offer too much.

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