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Progress we can live with

Posted: November 27, 2013 - 1:03am

Last week, a North Carolina-based energy company agreed to pay $1 million in fines, restitution and community service for violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). A year ago, the MBTA was used to fine Juneau artist Archie Cavanaugh $2,000 for attempting to sell a hat and headdress he made containing bird feathers. One case seems to be a roadblock to development, the other disrespect of ancient traditions. But if we look closer, we’ll see both stories are about progress.

Duke Energy Renewables operates four wind farms in Wyoming. On two of those, they admitted that 14 golden eagles and 149 other migratory birds protected under the MBTA were incidentally killed during the past four years. Their guilty plea amounted to the first criminal conviction of a wind farm operator for violation of this law.

According to Robert G. Dreher, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, the company acknowledged that it had built those facilities “in a manner it knew beforehand would likely result in avian deaths.” In other words, it appears that Duke Energy knowingly broke the law.

However, it’s not likely that Duke could have prevented all of the bird deaths caused by impacts with their wind turbines, and a $1 million fine seems to be a harsh penalty for what averages to less than three eagles and about 37 birds killed each year.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently considering permit requests for 15 other wind farms that would make it legal for each to kill up to three eagles per year. That’s certainly not as severe as the environmental consequences we often accept as the price of progress.

In Cavanaugh’s case, he claims he didn’t kill any birds. He told an Anchorage Daily News reporter that he obtained the raven from an animal control officer who found the bird dead, and that the flicker feathers were given to him by a farmer who simply found them laying on the ground. And like most of us, he wasn’t even aware that there were laws against selling art that contained bird feathers.

Cavanaugh’s story becomes more compelling when you consider the fact that for centuries Native American artists and carvers have been creating clothing and ceremonial regalia adorned with bird feathers. Furthermore, the concept of waste was foreign to those traditional cultures. They didn’t take an animal just for its prized parts — unlike European descendants who killed bison only for their commercially valued hides and tongues, while leaving their carcasses to rot on the plains.

Alaska also saw its sea otter and walrus populations decimated by the commercial exploitation of foreigners. And let’s not forget it was the commercial trade in bird feathers that threatened many species with extinction and led to passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Such trade still remains a concern of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Spokeswoman Andrea Medeiros told the Associated Press that permitting the sale of art containing bird feathers would create a financial incentive that could lead to illegal bird hunting.

Medeiros was responding to questions about an amendment to the law proposed by Rep. Don Young and Sen. Lisa Murkowski. If passed, it would make it legal for Native Alaskans to possess, sell or transport authentic Alaskan Native handicrafts or clothing containing feathers, provided that the bird was not taken in a wasteful manner.

The irony between these two cases is that traditional native culture respected all aspects of the living world. They recognized the finite resources of their local environment to the extent that waste was sacrilegious. The European culture that conquered the continent believed bison, otter, birds and energy resources were all inexhaustible. But we’ve proved otherwise by placing monetary economics ahead of environmental sustainability.

We’re not going to turn the clock back to ancient times, but neither do we want to revert to the regulatory climate of a century ago. If we did turn back the clock, operators like Duke Energy would be allowed to kill thousands of birds without consequences. At the same time, Alaska Natives like Archie Cavanaugh wouldn’t have two Congressional voices in his corner standing up for the traditional way of life of our nation’s First People.

Instead, let’s recognize that we’re making progress we can live with and pass on to the generations that follow.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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