By Eric Stiles

Scientists have concluded that climate change and habitat loss are the two primary threats to the survival of wildlife and natural communities. Thanks to the recent passage of the New Jersey Global Warming Response Act and forward-thinking state policies, we are now beginning to wrestle with solutions, including energy conservation and expansion of renewable energy.

The development of wind farms off the New Jersey coast is a critical component of our state's strategy to address global climate change. When properly sited, these farms can play a key role in reducing the negative impact of rising temperatures on the health and well-being of humans as well as our state's unique bird and wildlife communities.

According to a November 2006 report by the World Wildlife Fund, unchecked climate change could force 72 percent of world bird species into extinction. In New Jersey, we could see the loss of at least 37 species, including the threatened Savannah sparrow and bobolink, and flooding along our coasts could destroy critical habitat for the red knot as well as 10 additional endangered species. Needless to say, global climate change and the resulting rapid increases in temperature pose a direct and major threat to the well-being of our bird and wildlife species. This is particularly alarming due to the important role these species play in the success of our state's economy - wildlife-watching, hunting and fishing alone generate more than $3.9 billion each year.

The good news is that New Jersey still has time to protect these critical resources and greatly reduce the worst effects of global climate change through energy conservation, the reduction of greenhouse gases, and the development of renewable energy resources, including offshore wind farms.

In 2005, the Governor's Blue Ribbon Panel on the Development of Wind Turbine Facilities in Coastal Waters released a report that acknowledged wind power as a promising part of our long-term energy solution and provided policy recommendations regarding the appropriateness of developing offshore facilities in coastal waters. The New Jersey Audubon Society, of which I am an official, strongly supports these recommendations, but is disappointed by the state's deviation from the panel's recommended preliminary, sequential steps for proceeding with offshore wind development.

Wind turbines can cause both direct and indirect harm to birds and other wildlife species through habitat fragmentation, disturbance and death due to collisions with blades or support structures. This potential harm to species is certainly of grave concern given the important role New Jersey's coastal waters play in providing habitat for wildlife, including the millions of songbirds, shorebirds and waterbirds found in the Atlantic Coastal and Delaware Bayshore regions each year. However, the good news is that European pre-construction studies suggest that ecological baseline data can and should be used to inform siting decisions, thereby potentially reducing wildlife-turbine interactions. Therefore, it is clear that potential wind farm sites off the New Jersey coast must be adequately studied before construction in order to minimize harm to these species.

Acknowledging the importance of proper siting, the governor's panel recommended the state proceed with a pilot project to obtain practical knowledge of the benefits and impacts resulting from offshore wind turbine facilities only after first conducting scientific baseline studies about the nature of our offshore natural resources. However, instead of following these recommendations, the state has proceeded with the development of a pilot project before completing the necessary research. This action can be compared to a town permitting a new development without first reviewing the potential environmental impacts of choosing that particular location.

While the New Jersey Audubon Society supports the governor's initiative to harness offshore wind energy in New Jersey, we urge the state to follow the recommendations of the governor's blue ribbon panel. This will ensure the proper siting of wind farms in order to minimize negative impacts on wildlife species. By addressing global warming now through the development of properly-sited offshore wind projects, the State of New Jersey can protect not only our plants and wildlife, but also the future well-being of our economy and quality of life.