Monday, February 4, 2008

Opposition to windfarm on the Isle of Lewis and Highlands research

Guardian picture: Lewis wind farm

Some readers may know I did my MS research on the history of economic development programs in the Highlands and Islands (including an analysis of their ecological sustainability), so I try to stay in touch. I also served there while in the military. I've particularly been watching the wind business because it's a few years, but only a few years, ahead of Maine's. The kinds of things happening there will soon happen here. There's a lot of wind in the Western Isles, and planned development of this resource makes sense. But not everyone feels the same way. The high level of local opposition to this particular wind farm surprised me. I expected some, but not as much as this article describes.

On reflection, perhaps the Lewis wind farm and similar proposals represent another "colonial" scheme for the Highlands, in that most of the product and profit would almost certainly exit the area. This seems a reasonable prediction because the scale guarantees largely "foreign" investors will be involved. In this case the scheme drew considerable opposition even though large annual payments were guaranteed to local folk. Smaller, locally-supported and financed schemes might fare better politically.

The history of the Highlands since the mid 1700s is that they have repeatedly featured large in the economic development (and social engineering) notions of folks from "away," while the local voice has generally been politically muted (although not always, and much less so recently).

Highlanders systematically found it difficult to develop their economy without external ideas and capital; but unless programs are accepted locally, the tendency has been for them to eventually collapse, after a short and disruptive lifespan.

The area is littered with the remains of failed schemes.

Lewis, on the other hand, was insulated from this for many years by the indigenous development of a premium-market, cottage-based, tweed-weaving industry which survives to this day, and by its strict Presbyterian religious life. But those are other stories.

There are lots of interesting Highland development stories.

Mainers might well learn something from Highland development history. Maine is also quite well-sprinkled with failed industrial schemes. And it has similar ecology.

Some other Unity College academics and myself are taking a Highlands research trip soon, to visit the site of a very dramatic new scheme: a private "wilderness" reserve with huge implications for Highland ecology.

Briefly, one aspect of the current Highland land system, first detailed scientifically by the famous ecologist Sir Frank Fraser Darling, is systematic overgrazing by sheep and red deer, which has led to forest suppression. The landscape would otherwise look a lot like Maine, albeit with lower tree-line, but instead it's quite bare of trees except where they are protected by fence or steep ground. The photo above is an example. The reintroduction of predators on red deer such as wolf and brown bear, extinct for centuries, would promote regeneration of forest cover by controlling deer populations.

Such a reintroduction, however, would very threatening to Highland crofters and farmers, who don't generally keep their sheep fenced and sheltered from predators as we do here in Maine. The tendency is to believe (what Mainers know to be false) that you can't farm sheep in the presence of ursid and canid predators. But it is nevertheless, a very scary thought.

The big bad wolf. And you can see from the Lewis case how politically powerful Highlanders can be when organized and upset.

I'm quite excited about the trip as I haven't been to the Highlands for a few years. Expect some posts and pictures, and a slide lecture on our return. In the meantime, as I work a little harder to update my Highlands knowledge and research, I'll post some of the more interesting sustainability-related Highland development articles I find here.

Here's the wind farm article.

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