Evelyn Cormier: bird protector, climate activist and general busybody

At 85, Cormier has no plans to let the Altamont Pass Wind Farm off the hook anytime soon

“I stay motivated because I’m stubborn,” 85-year-old Evelyn Cormier tells me. We are sitting on the couch in her home in Hayward, California as Cormier shows me a heavy stack of file folders. “This is my Altamont stuff.”

When Cormier refers to her “Altamont stuff,” she means the research, strategy and legal documents she has collected over more than a decade of watching the development of wind energy in the Altamont Pass, a mountain pass east of the San Francisco Bay in the Diablo Range. The Altamont Pass Wind Farm is one of the oldest in the country, and has the largest concentration of turbines—though not electricity capacity—of any wind farm in the world. It is the large number of old turbines, however, that has had environmentalists like Cormier rallying against the wind farms at Altamont Pass.

The older turbines, installed after the energy crisis in the 1970s, are smaller than more modern models both in terms of size and energy generation. Combined with the fact that Altamont Pass is located along an important bird corridor, collisions with the smaller turbines have had devastating effects on bird populations such as the endangered Golden Eagle. The high eagle fatalities in particular brought Audubon California and local chapters in the area—including Evelyn’s chapter, Ohlone Audubon—into the fight for conservation-minded renewable energy development at Altamont.

Through the years of work on Altamont, Audubon California’s Policy Director Mike Lynes has come to know Cormier very well. He describes her as an activist that everyone knows and respects; “polite but fierce.”

There have been ups and down in the battle at Altamont Pass, with Cormier present each step along the way. In 2004, a California Energy Commission study confirmed the high fatalities, finding that the older turbines killed between 1,766 and 4,271 birds every year. A settlement between environmental groups and the energy companies in 2005 looked promising, but failed to deliver. After more battling, another settlement was reached in 2010 to repower the old turbines with bigger, less lethal ones. Then-California Attorney General Edmund Brown Jr. called it a “landmark settlement,” but Cormier and the rest of Audubon California weren’t done—not all the wind companies took the settlement.

Lynes recalls a meeting between various NGOs working on the issue and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) following the 2010 settlement. The USFWS representative expressed criticism for the agreement for not doing enough, and Cormier set the high-ranking official straight.

“Evelyn let her have it in only the way that Evelyn could, being kind but firm and decisive in her defense of the settlement as a small but incomplete victory,” Lynes said. “Evelyn then proceeded to ask why the USFWS had left all the work to non-profits with few resources. It was the first time I’d seen the government rep truly speechless.”

When I talk to Cormier about the past settlements and agreements at Altamont, she gives me all the legal and scientific explanations while humbly leaving out her own involvement. When we start to talk about what’s left to do, however, she talks with more excitement and energy.

“We want all the small turbines replaced with larger, well-sited ones, and we want turbines shut off during critical migration times,” Cormier said. “We want transparency and cooperation with all the wind companies, not just some.”

A promising step toward this goal came in November of last year when Altamont Winds Inc. announced it would close the remaining dangerous turbines for the winter. The company even began dismantling the turbines in March. According to Cormier, however, there is still a need to monitor the development of new plans with Summit Wind to repower the area.

“It’s been a long haul, and we can’t trust it to be done right without us now,” Cormier said. She’s waiting for an upcoming hearing in August over the Summit Winds project.

The progress in the Altamont Pass feels personal to Cormier, but it’s hardly her first foray into environmental activism and volunteer work. When she shows me around her home, I notice a dreamcatcher hanging on her wall, reading, “Hero of Hayward 2011, Honored Volunteer.”

Cormier dismisses it as her “busybody award,” but it recognizes her high level of community involvement on a range of issues. She’s also fought large housing development in critical wetland area along the Hayward shoreline. When she’s not with Audubon, she’s working at the library or the League of Women Voters.

Cormier’s journey to conservation began when, as an elementary school teacher, she took her students on a fieldtrip to a nature preserve. Cormier, who had an ingrained love of nature from her upbringing in Montana, was horrified to see her students remove and throw rocks, and slide down pristine slopes with cardboard sleds. They didn’t know how to appreciate, or at least respect, the natural habitat that they visited. That’s when Cormier went back to school, this time for a degree in environmental education.

She’s been an activist and an advocate ever since. Cormier doesn’t just talk the talk, she walks the walk too. She drives a hybrid car and tells me excitedly about her rooftop solar system.

“It’s pretty great to have an electricity bill of $10 a month,” Cormier said. “It’s also good to give PG&E a kick in the butt.”

Her rooftop solar panels, she explains, allow her to cut her carbon emissions without impeding any natural habitat. Cormier hopes to dispel the idea that groups like Audubon only care about birds and not climate change. “Working on both issues can and should go together, and that’s my dream for Altamont,” she said.

When I ask Cormier if she has any plans to scale back or slow down her activism, she shakes her head fervently. “And when you’re 85, I expect you to do the same thing.”

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