VTDigger’s at it again

I was hoping maybe my recent post, “VTDigger is Biased Against Wind Energy,” would at least make the folks on the second floor stop and think.

I guess not. Because they’ve got another doozy today, entitled “Bird Advocates Concerned About Stiles Brook Proposal.”

The gist of the article is that an organization called the American Bird Conservancy has weighed in on the proposed Grafton/Windham wind farm with dire warnings about rising piles of bird and bat corpses.

“ABC questions whether the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of our shared ecologically important birds and bats justifies building any large, commercial wind energy facility in areas with seasonally high concentrations of birds and bats, like (Stiles Brook),” wrote Michael Hutchins, director of the conservancy’s “Bird Smart Wind Energy Campaign.”

Okay, hmm. “Hundreds of thousands, if not millions” from a single wind farm? Sounds awful.

Too bad it’s completely false.

According to actual scientific research, all the wind turbines, combined, kill roughly 300,000 birds a year.

Still. Sounds bad, right?

Well, house cats kill three billion birds a year.

For every bird killed by a turbine, ten thousand birds are killed by cats. So, let’s ban house cats, right?

Okay, so who exactly is the American Bird Conservancy?

If you Google the outfit, you find barely a trace — except for a bunch of press releases attacking wind farms for allegedly murdering birds by the truckload.

There’s minimal information about ABC on websites that track charitable organizations. I found a link to ABC’s most recent IRS 990 form, the required annual filing for nonprofits. Turns out, ABC is a little tiny thing. It’s headquartered in the home of its founder, George Fenwick. Its 2014 revenues and expenditures were barely in five figures — between $10,000 and $11,000.

Update: I got the financials wrong, as noted naturalist Bryan Pfeiffer pointed out in the comments. The IRS 990 form omits a set of zeroes, so ABC is much larger than I gave them credit for being. I think the rest of my argument stands; I appreciate Bryan’s agreement with my side. Means a lot. My apologies for understating ABC’s resources.

Digger reporter Mike Faher seems to have not done even that minimal amount of homework, because he buys ABC’s credentials without question.

And how did ABC become aware of Stiles Brook? We don’t find that out until the 14th paragraph, when ABC’s Michael Hutchins says he
learned of Stiles Brook when “I was contacted by opposition groups in the area and asked to get involved.”

So, opponents of Stiles Brook went fishing for validation and finally found some. Perhaps they also contacted, oh, maybe the Audubon Society or the Nature Conservancy or the World Wildlife Fund or some other organization you’ve actually heard of*, and ended up settling for a pocket-sized group with a track record of opposing wind power.

*All of which, need I add, actually support wind energy.

Faher allots ABC plenty of space for its scare tactics. It’s not until the twenty-second paragraph that he provides a tiny bit of space to a VPIRG fact sheet that says fossil fuels are “responsible for a far higher number of bird fatalities than wind turbines” and notes that “the biggest enemies of birds continue to be cats and buildings.”

Thanks, Mike.

Total paragraph allotment: 14 for ABC and opponents of Stiles Brook, seven for the VPIRG fact sheet and the response from wind farm developer Iberdrola.

Oh, one other thing. ABC’s Hutchins cites specific potential impacts from Stiles Brook in terms of migratory patterns and potentially endangered species. But at the very end of the article, Faher lets us in on a little secret.

Hutchins cites reports and studies for his general conclusions and concerns about turbine development and bird habitat. But he acknowledged on Friday that he has not specifically studied or visited Stiles Brook.

Again, thanks, Mike. And thank YOU, VTDigger.

 

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33 thoughts on “VTDigger’s at it again

  1. Macy Franklin

    John, you need professional help. Your obsession with windmills is clouding your logic and causing you to turn against one of your own. Perhaps a call to The Quixote Society is in order.

    Reply
  2. NanuqFC

    John, you’re doing one of those journalistic no-nos you often call out others for — and yes, I know, you don’t pretend to be a journalist, you’re a blogger and allowed to violate all kinds of journalistic standards.

    Equating deaths of birds by wind turbine and by domestic house cats elides the fact that developers make money from turbines, while cat owners don’t realize any profit from their felines.

    I’m not anti-wind, just want to note that these things are different, even without taking into consideration the siting of some wind projects on public lands (and no, I don’t know whether the project in question is one such).

    Reply
    1. johngreenberg

      NanuqFC:
      “Equating deaths of birds by wind turbine and by domestic house cats elides the fact that developers make money from turbines, while cat owners don’t realize any profit from their felines.”

      Ok, so now that you’ve pointed out this distinction, what difference does it make? Why does the fact that developers are making money change anything? I fail to see the relevance of this distinction. Certainly, it’s not a distinction that makes any difference to the birds: either way, they’re dead.

      Reply
    2. walter h moses

      OMG! If housecats could make money for their owners by killing song birds……..
      Just think what Blitterrsderf and VT Special Interest Research Group could do with that.

      Reply
  3. David Blittersdorf

    VTDigger, as you say, did little fact checking into the ABC groups bogus claims.
    1.) Bicknell’s thrust nest above 3000′ in dense conifer forest and Stiles Brook hills are 2000′ to 2300′ in mixed hardwood/conifer forests. They are a higher altitude mountain bird in the NE habitat.
    2.) Their winter habitat in Haiti has been denuded of all trees and the DR has habitat problems too. According to VT’s ANR folks, their numbers are low due to the destruction of their winter habitat.

    FACTS MATTER!

    Reply
  4. P. Velloz

    So I get the fustration with the opposition group, but I think the house cat argument is a bit off. VT Act 250 and other regulations is VT and every other state limit projects that would have an undue adverse affect (or similar threshold) on certain species, plant life, noise, etc. The public policy (for good reason) does not compare the affect of a project to other sources of impact (e.g. house cats) – but only seeks to determine if a project will have an undue adverse affect (maybe the argument is that killing 300,000 birds is not an undue adverse affect on the bird species?) . So a developer cannot build if the project has an undue adverse affect on deer wintering sites (regardless of how many deer are killed by hunters or cars); or they cannot build if there will be an undue adverse affect on certain bat roosting habitat (regardless of the fact that disease is killing off the bat population). That’s public policy – the house cat argument is flawed but does make for a nice sound bite.

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      The 300,000 is a universal figure for all wind turbines. The actual effect of an individual development is extremely small. Over the course of many years, the state has thoroughly studied wildlife impacts as well as every other question about wind farms.

      And, as VPIRG points out, the impact of climate change on birds is far, far more catastrophic than that of wind turbines.

      Reply
    2. johngreenberg

      P. Velloz:

      The only way I can see to determine whether an adverse effect is “undue” is by way of comparison — either explicit or implicit — to other adverse effects.

      To use your own example, it’s hard to imagine an Act 250 board would prohibit a project which might kill one deer, if the available evidence showed that ten thousand deer were being killed daily in the project area (and that’s the correct ratio) whether or not the project were built.

      Reply
      1. johngreenberg

        I should add the following to my reply to P. Velloz.

        How could ANY project with windows be allowed in VT if killing birds and bats is a determinative priority and windows kill thousands of times more birds and bats than wind turbines? And why would we allow homeowners to continue to own cats? (That’s not an Act 250 decision, but it IS a social question which could be legislated.)

  5. Brooke Paige

    “Back in the day” conservationist and ecologists would have been concerned over thousands of birds and bats being needlessly injured or killed and would never have diverted the discussion to an equation of equivalence. What is the point of discussing how many birds are killed by housecats when the subject is the bird mortality caused by industrial wind turbines. Should the turbine operators be required to mitigate or prevent the carnage instead of accepting it as a cost of doing business. We would never accept big oil companies arguing that we must accept the loss of hundreds of seals or seabirds as a cost of transporting oil by oil tankers. This is no different !

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      “Back in the day,” actually, they would have built whatever they wanted to wherever they wanted to without the slightest consideration for birds. Just like, back in the day, we built coal-fired power plants without any filtering and put lead in our gasoline and allowed riverside industries to dump anything in the water.

      Things are better now. And wind farms are generally sited with consideration for migratory patterns and such. I don’t know if that was a consideration for Stiles Brook, but the gent from ABC sure as Hell doesn’t know that, since he admitted himself he didn’t know beans about Stiles Brook.

      Reply
  6. Eddo

    I for one, appreciate bringing reality into the story. Why should anyone give Vt Digger a pass because they generally writes good stories if they have what seems to be a strong bias in even just this one topic?
    I always take what I read, from any source, with a grain of salt, but the obvious bias VTDigger has against wind, and hiding that bias in news rather than promoting it as opinion, now makes me distrust everything they write. A reader shouldn’t have to Google every source in a story just to get the truth, that’s what reporters, and editors, are supposed to do.

    Reply
  7. bobzeliff

    FWIW I tried to post on the Digger with a link to your thevpo.org site suggesting there were some interesting comments on the ABC.
    I’m somewhat surprised that Digger chose to edit out my post. Disappointed too.

    Reply
    1. James Mason

      I’m not surprised. Almost every comment I make that’s anti-anti-wind or anti-Burlington Town Center (another item for which their newroom has cheer-led uncritically) gets wiped too. I’m not sure who does the moderating, but I suspect it’s done from the same bias as their articles.

      Reply
    2. Roger R. Hill

      I wanted to write about the bi-partisan carbon neutral tax that Phil Scott had signed up to absolutely oppose in recent statements and the WCAX debate. Nothing doing — their minders did not want to hear any of it. I wrote complained to Jaspar Craven and received nothing back. I’m assuming the worst…they are going FOX/Drudge — sure hope my assumption is incorrect, but just read their comments section and have your vomit can nearby..

      Reply
  8. Brooke Paige

    While John readily admits his work is not journalism (a claim I do not accept believing John’s work rivals the local media), clearly VTDigger claims to be a non-partisan news organization and clearly they are not. VTDigger has become (or has always been) a political advocacy group reflecting the social and political biases of Diana and Anne.

    This may come back to bite VTDigger since they operate as an IRS 501(c)3 charitable organization (charitable, religious, scientific, literary, and certain educational organizations) enjoying several tax advantages. Unfortunately, VTDigger’s activities are more consistent with those of a IRS 527 political organization . While this may seem a small issue, if it was brought to the attention of the IRS, would have significant implications for the organization – especially their fund raising activities and financing sources.

    Relivant IRS Code Information (Extracts)

    IRS Exemption Requirements – 501(c)(3) Charitable Organizations

    To be tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, an organization must be organized and operated exclusively for exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3), and none of its earnings may inure to any private shareholder or individual. In addition, it may not be an action organization, i.e., it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.

    https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/charitable-organizations/exemption-requirements-section-501-c-3-organizations

    IRS Exemption Requirements – 527 Political Organizations

    A political organization subject to section 527 is a party, committee, association, fund, or other organization (whether or not incorporated) organized and operated primarily for the purpose of directly or indirectly accepting contributions or making expenditures, or both, for an exempt function.

    A political organization must be organized for the primary purpose of carrying on exempt function activities. A political organization’s primary activities must be exempt function activities. A political organization may engage in activities that are not exempt function activities, but these may not be its primary activities.

    To be exempt, a political organization must file a timely notice with the IRS that it is to be treated as a tax-exempt organization.

    https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/political-organizations/exemption-requirements-political-organizations

    Reply
    1. johngreenberg

      Brooke Paige’s comment is misguided. There are many 501(c)(3) organizations which take a very definite point of view, including, to cite two Vermont examples Annette Smith’s Vermonters for a Clean Environment and the New England Coalition. There is nothing in the tax code which precludes overt bias in a news organization.

      What the IRS prohibits is lobbying for specific legislation (which is permitted up to a certain point for c(3)s– my recollection is 20% of expenditures) or advocating for specific candidates. To my knowledge, VT Digger doesn’t do either of these: at all.

      Consequently, VT Digger’s tax-exempt status is not at risk.

      Reply
  9. Bryan Pfeiffer

    John,

    You blew the financials on this one. Yes, please do argue wind on the merits — sound science and actual numbers on bird fatalities in this case. Good on ya. And please do scrutinize bias at VTDigger. Nice work. But American Bird Conservancy’s revenues last year were $12,576,475 and expenses were $11,500,711 (hardly the “little tiny thing” you describe). You’ll find those numbers in American Bird Conservancy’s 2015 annual report (https://abcbirds.org/results/annual-reports/).

    More to the point, you of all people should know better than to equate a balance sheet with credibility. Even if American Bird Conservancy’s revenues were as paltry as you erroneously report, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that the organization lacked merit. Sure, fault how American Bird Conservancy spends its millions. But if size and budget were an absolute measure of credibility, you yourself (and “little tiny” VPO) would have very little to offer us.

    Bryan Pfeiffer

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Bryan: You’re right on the financials. I looked at the Conservancy’s IRS 990, which left off a set of zeroes for revenue and expenditures. I should have checked more carefully, especially since (as you rightfully point out) an organization’s size isn’t the best measure of its worth.

      Post being corrected.

      Reply
  10. Cairn Cross

    Looks like the 2014 cat food market in the U.S. (https://www.statista.com/statistics/197950/symphonyiri-tracked-dollar-sales-of-cat-food-in-the-us/ ) was over $6BN so clearly somebody’s making money on cats. Assume that Vermont is .002 (Vermont population divided by US population) of that market which makes the cat food market in Vermont $12MM or about $50 per household assuming 240,000 households. Seems like a plausible number. So let’s ban pet food stores and we will save a ton of birds. Plus the damn cats own the internet….they are everywhere you turn…who knows what else they are doing? I have two of them and I can’t understand them at all!

    Reply
    1. Brooke Paige

      Cairn Cross, the IRS requirements specifically states the 501(c)3 tax exempt organization,”may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates (at all).”. The question will be best settled by an inquiry submitted to the IRS for resolution.

      Reply
      1. johngreenberg

        Brooke:
        I answered this once. Since you persist, I’ll answer it here more precisely. 501(c)(3) organizations ARE allowed to lobby. There are 2 tests. The substantial part test requires IRS oversight.

        However, organizations may elect the expenditure test instead. For organizations with total exempt expenditures below $500,000, lobbying expenditures may not exceed 20% of their total. VT Digger falls into this category. http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2301662-vjt9902014.html The remaining IRS rules are here: https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/measuring-lobbying-activity-expenditure-test.

      2. Cairn Cross

        What does your comment have to do with cats Brooke? It’s about the cats and also about sarcasm of course.

  11. Roger R. Hill

    Good Lordy lordy lordy — Hey kids lets check the impact of song birds say in 2050 with business as usual CO2 belch?? Any takers??? Yes this supersedes all arguments above, but I digress.
    2. I do find it interesting that if it’s wind turbines spinning away and their detriment to song birds/bats etc.

    3. It seems we are all A-OK with large antennae towers and ski resorts all over. Where was the uproar when these were proposed back in yesteryear? What this tells me is many opponents I do not know the percentages but have a guess and its large – use NIMBY as a thorn against those advocating to get off fossil fuels related to political positions on particular party apparatus, No?.

    Reply
    1. Brooke Paige

      Roger,

      This is simply not true, there was significant pushback in the 1980’s when the ski industry sought to significantly expand the slopes AND the wireless and cell providers still experience resistance to placing their communication towers in remote areas (one of the primary reasons we still have spotty reception in remote areas of the state) In the 70’s we banned advertising billboards because they were a blight on our rural landscape – yet today many see no problem with the visual blight from vast fields of the “black billboards” and gargantuan industrial wind machines placed atop our once pristine ridgelines. Resistance is nothing new and I fear it is still futile !

      Brooke

      Reply
  12. Only in Vermont

    Honestly, this is the only paragraph you need to read to realize that this article is click-bait and misleading:

    “Hutchins cites reports and studies for his general conclusions and concerns about turbine development and bird habitat. But he acknowledged on Friday that he has not specifically studied or visited Stiles Brook.”

    So: “GENERAL conclusions” and “not specifically studied OR visited” — is what this entire article is based on. Really!?

    And it’s also conveniently placed at the end of the article. Sorry, this is bad reporting on VTDigger’s part. I honestly expect more from them.

    Reply
    1. Dorothy Flash

      I don’t expect more, unfortunately, as it seems misrepresentation has increasingly become Digger’s bread and butter. I guess journalism without the editorial slant doesn’t quite pay the bills.

      Reply

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