The National Audubon Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have joined forces, with support from Google.org Geo Challenge Grants, to create Google Earth maps of 13 states in the western United States.
Now accessible via Google Earth at http://earth.google.com/outreach/protectedareas, the maps identify areas where land use is legally restricted. Other data layers highlight areas that should be avoided in energy development, including habitats critically important to wildlife. Users exploring specific areas, such as those proposed for energy development, can easily see how little land is legally off-limits and which of the remaining areas have unique qualities that deserve special protection to avoid imperiling sensitive resources.
"We must strike a winning balance to meet growing energy needs and this project shows we can," said Frances Beinecke, President of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This map demonstrates a way forward for renewable energy development and protection of our wildlife and landscapes across the West."
"This is the first step in reducing energy development conflicts by giving people from all walks of life the information they need to participate in critical site-selection decisions," added Audubon President John Flicker. "This approach can build the broad support needed to give the green light to green energy nationwide by helping to locate wind turbines and other production and transmission facilities in places that minimize negative impacts on birds and wildlife."
The full potential of the Google Earth project can be seen in maps of six states considered prime for wind resources: Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Colorado, North Dakota and South Dakota. Along with existing protected areas, the maps identify critical habitat for the Greater Sage-Grouse, an iconic western species that is seriously threatened by continued loss and degradation of its remaining native habitat.
Displaying zones of highest grouse concentration along with the vast number of potential wind-generation areas that are less critical to wildlife, the maps reveal places that should and should not be considered for energy development. The approach is already bringing political, energy and environmental interests closer to protect critical grouse areas in Wyoming. A task force representing broad perspectives on energy issues used the maps to craft a recommendation leading to an executive order from Governor Dave Freudenthal that limited the amount and intensity of energy development in identified core sage-grouse habitat.
"This technology will help in the very important effort to create precise maps to understand where wildlife feed, live, breed, and migrate, and where we should tread the most lightly in our effort to develop our energy resources," said Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal.
The need for this kind of guidance is growing. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar just ordered the establishment of a federal task force to increase the development and transmission of renewable energy from appropriate public lands. And the Western Governors' Association recently unveiled its own maps of draft renewable energy resource zones for public comment as a first step to speed renewable energy development.
"Our maps can help establish the meaning of 'appropriate public lands' for renewable energy development in the federal planning process and guide the Governors' Association in refining the preliminary boundaries of its resource zones," said Brian Rutledge, Audubon Wyoming Executive Director.
"With economic stimulus dollars starting to flow, this project gives us a starting point for ensuring that we're investing in both the right technology and the right places—places where energy development and wildlife are compatible," added NRDC's Beinecke.
"We need to deploy clean energy on an unprecedented scale," said David Bercovich, Google.org Program Manager. "As we decide where to build renewable energy generation plants and transmission lines, it's essential that we protect irreplaceable wildlife and landscapes while making it as easy as possible for developers to build these projects. NRDC and the National Audubon Society have created a valuable tool that can help guide developers away from sensitive areas and serve as a platform to streamline the siting process while protecting sensitive wildlife and landscape areas."
"Protecting America's natural legacy and building a clean energy economy are critical to our nation's future," said Joshua Bar-Lev, vice president of regulatory affairs for BrightSource Energy, a California-based company that develops, builds, owns, and operates large scale solar plants. "By utilizing technology to identify where to develop renewable projects that will have the least environmental impact, Google Earth Layers is helping to achieve both of these objectives."
Audubon and NRDC plan to expand the new Google Earth maps with additional habitat information and other planning data that will inspire the public to discover and protect the natural areas of the mapped landscapes. They can travel to "Important Bird Areas" critical to the health of avian species or take a closer look at the natural resources that abound in various protected regions. They can also see 15 types of sensitive areas showing different categories of land protection. Links to species and habitat information on www.audubon.org and www.nrdc.org offer additional opportunities to connect with the land and the wildlife, and how we can work together to protect them.
"We want to build on this pilot to establish common ground and spread green energy opportunities across America," emphasized Audubon's Flicker. "We're really mapping a better way to work together to let green energy fuel a healthier future for people and wildlife alike."
The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has 1.2 million members and online activists, served from offices in New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Beijing. www.nrdc.org
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Photos and video b-roll available
To learn more about the new Google Earth Tool, and Audubon's Sagebrush Initiative, explore these web pages.