Despite the growing fight to save monarch butterflies, Oregon’s Department of Land Conservation and Development, the Farm Bureau and 1,000 Friends of Oregon look like they are fighting to save turf grass and the use of chemical pesticides.
In a national column published last month, citizen scientist Mary Ellen Hannibal reports that “the total number of West Coast monarchs was estimated at approximately 4.5 million in the 1980s. In the latest count, that number fell to 28,429, dipping below the number scientists estimate is needed to keep the population going.”
The leading cause — habitat loss caused by intensive agriculture and urbanization — is highlighted in an alarming and comprehensive study published just this month in the journal Biological Conservation. The peer-reviewed study examined 73 historical reports of insect declines globally, and reports that “over 40 percent of insect species are threatened with extinction.”
Meanwhile, farmers who are actively trying to build resilience into their revenue with a solar farm lease are getting blocked by the land conservation agency and its supporters who have the narrow view that solar farms can’t possibly be a productive use of farmland.
The department recently proposed a rule that would prohibit solar farms, but allow turf grass and chemical-intensive row crops, on certain classes of farmland. But a growing movement within the solar industry is showing that solar farms can act as sanctuaries for the pollinators urgently needed in agriculture. Scientists at Oregon State University have already demonstrated that plants grow better in the shade provided by solar panels, which provides an opportunity to efficiently combine clean energy production with the re-introduction of pollinating insect habitat on the same site.
To me and my family, it makes sense that helping avoid the worst effects of climate change — such as entire fields of valuable wine grapes ruined by smoke taint and mountain towns reduced to ash — is a productive use of farmland. But others have different standards. Oregon spreads tons of chemicals each year to grow more than 300,000 acres of turf grass seed — a cropt that’s used for pasture, but also to help convert millions of acres of farmland into low-density residential development throughout the country.
By comparison, solar farms can use private-sector money to establish and maintain acres of habitat that help save our monarchs and other pollinators. This strikes me as a reasonable approach for the tiny percentage of farmland that is forecast to be used to help Oregon transition to 100 percent clean energy. I hope the Department and its supporters change course so that future generations of Oregonians will be able to witness the western monarch migration.
Sean Prive of Medford is co-founder of Understory Initiative, an ecological consulting firm.