Saturday, July 14, 2012

The blue-winged warbler and the brontosaurus

from Northeast Utilities website
Northeast Utilities (NSTAR's new owner) would like you to believe that its utility corridor clear-cuts are friendly to the natural environment. And to some extent they are right. Over the last century we've reforested New England but without beavers and fires to control the spread of trees other sorts of habitats have become more scarce. As long as there are hay fields there will be grassland habitats but so-called "shrublands," the midsuccession habitats favored by some bird species, are rare outside of the right-of-ways (ROWs) maintained by companies such as Northeast Utilities.

The blue-winged warbler is one of the bird species that thrives in shrublands. Thus it has become a symbol of the environmental good accomplished by NU's approach to vegetation management. The blue-winged warbler is a charming bird, pretty to look at and fun to hear.  (Its recent success has also caused the decline of the golden-winged warbler, but that's another story...) NU uses it on its website (above) and it makes an appearance on a long piece of video propaganda explaining the ROW construction process. (Direct link here).

Another creature inhabiting shrubland? The brontosaurus.

from John Brown & Sons website
Technically, the brontosaurus is just the mower attachment, the excavator's grinding maw. It destroys brush and small trees with brutal efficiency and may be swapped out for a chainsaw when necessary. This is the machine that people see leveling vegetation behind their homes, on their playgrounds, and sometimes in their yards.

It is not built for subtlety or discretion, but for swift and thorough desolation. It doesn't care whether there are birds nesting in the branches it takes down (even if those birds are blue-winged warblers, which tend to nest in the tall trees at the edges of clearings). It doesn't care whether the tree it's just demolished was beloved by children, perfect for climbing. It has a job and its job is the only thing. And so we have NSTAR, pursuing a single -minded policy relentlessly with no regard for the contexts of time (THE NESTING SEASON!) or location.

The shrubland argument works when there is a forest on either side of the ROW, but you don't create real shrublands in the suburbs, particularly when you are removing the edge trees birds need for nesting. When NSTAR/NU clear-cuts vegetation underneath and to the sides of transmission lines in the suburbs, it is really just making a path for a giant boom repair truck (shall we call it an "apatosaurus"?) Thus it is ultimately about the utility company's operational effectiveness, not any genuine environmental good. I wish they would leave the birds out of it.


voxman69 said...
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voxman69 said...

Excellent insight. Besides avoiding the nesting season, what other suggestions would you have in ROW clearing, or use of the brontosaurus to keep a safe corridor while promoting habitat for birds and wildlife?

Peter Oehlkers said...

Good question. For me the real contradiction is indeed the nesting season destruction. Like many people I also think the brontosaurus is probably OK for ROWs through forested areas but is too crude a tool for residential areas where the loss of all tall bordering trees may have a negative ecological impact.