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July 4, 2005

Menacing the Land, but Promising to Rescue the Earth

SHAP, England - In his time, Sir Chris Bonington, one of Britain's best-known mountaineers, has scaled the icy walls and ridges of the Alps and conquered Mount Everest, among other great peaks in the Himalayas and elsewhere. Now, he has turned his attention to a hill just 1,545 feet high, a spongy, rounded, gusty lump of land that might otherwise have achieved little renown, except for a plan to crown it with windmills.

Lots of windmills. In fact, a chain of enormous, power-generating wind turbines across a bald ridgeline stretching southwest of here from a summit called Whinash.

Like other notable people here on the fringes of England's Lake District - titled people, writers and broadcasters, along with many influential rural advocacy groups - Mr. Bonington is trying to prevent a private company from creating a wind farm on Whinash comprising 27 turbines, each one of them more than 370 feet tall. That is roughly 70 feet higher from ground to the tip of a blade than the Statue of Liberty from a toe to the tip of the torch.

In the process he has joined a bigger battle that some see as decisive in balancing Britain's wilderness heritage against a self-imposed target in the struggle against global warming to derive 10 percent of its electrical power from renewable sources by 2010.

Indeed, Prime Minister Tony Blair has placed the contentious business of global warming high on the agenda for the summit meeting of the Group of 8 major industrial nations this week - a likely point of contention with President Bush.

Like similar disputes in the United States, from California to West Virginia to Nantucket Sound, the tussle over the projected $100 million Whinash wind farm has divided the environmental movement in unlikely ways, turning onetime eco-allies against one another.

It has raised anew the question of whether wind power is no more than a huge and costly experiment that will enrich the people who build the farms without seriously reducing greenhouse gases. (The scramble among companies to profit from wind power - a wind rush some have likened to the Klondike gold rush - is such that a consortium of companies led by Royal Dutch Shell wants to build an even more enormous offshore wind farm with 270 turbines costing $2.7 billion where the Thames meets the North Sea 60 miles from London.)

But, most significant for some, the battle of the Whinash wind farm is being fought over a site directly abutting the Lake District National Park, for almost 60 years a protected haven of craggy wilderness and common land about 250 miles northwest of London that is part of the nation's soul. It remains for many a distillate of rugged beauty, culture and rural life bound together by the poetry of William Wordsworth, the tales of Beatrix Potter and the childhood adventures of generations of vacationers from Britain's onetime industrial north.

"It's not that I'm against wind power - we do have to find alternative, renewable sources of energy," Sir Chris said in an interview, gesturing toward the Whinash ridgeline from a highway coffee house near here. "But I think each site should be assessed like a balance sheet, on one side the aesthetic and environmental impact that a particular wind farm will have, set against the benefit of the amount of clean power that's going to be generated. On that kind of audit, Whinash just doesn't make sense."

The opponents' technical arguments are widely known. Even on these buffeted uplands, wind does not blow steadily enough to generate constant power; Britain's 100 wind farms produce only a tiny sliver of the country's electric power; and government subsidies mean that wind power costs consumers much more than power from Britain's gas, coal and nuclear-powered stations.

But, at a two-month public inquiry to determine whether the wind farm is built, opponents of the project brought forth an array of arguments that go far beyond technicalities. They conjured images of "a wall of spinning blades" and "silver satanic mills" marching across the fells, introducing the totems of industrial endeavor into the wilds.

Indeed, the Countryside Agency, a government body, has announced plans to extend the eastern border of the Lake District National Park to take in the Whinash region even though it boasts such nonwilderness features as electricity pylons, rock quarries, a high-speed railroad and a major highway. That designation would add to the obstacles facing would-be developers.

"Threats to the Lake District are not new," said Susan Denyer, an expert in cultural heritage sites. "However the scale, scope and intensity of the potential impact of the Whinash farm is of a different order of magnitude."

The company seeking permission for the project likely to be among Britain's biggest onshore wind farms argues that the project will provide "clean" energy for 47,000 homes with 100,000 people and will advance the government's high-profile attempts to curb global warming. It will be visible, they say, only from certain parts of the Lake District.

The familiar allies in protecting Britain's hard-pressed wilderness areas are divided on the Whinash project. Such organizations as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are in favor of the turbines, arguing that if greenhouse gases are not reduced, the debate about natural beauty will become irrelevant in an overheated world.

"If we don't get a move on in cutting our carbon dioxide emissions, our landscape is going to be damaged on a scale that is presently unimaginable," said Tony Juniper, the head of Friends of the Earth.

That argument found some supporters the other day among people like Kaneen Weir, 18, who was out walking in the rain near Whinash with four friends and a dog called Wiz.

"I think the turbines are a good idea because the world is going to end unless we do something," she said. "We need to stop global warming. Otherwise, we are not going to have nice views anyway."

Indeed, after seeing turbines elsewhere, Matthew Hutchings, 17, decided that he liked them. "They are a good thing, rather than just messing up the planet any more," he said.