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Cronkite urges full review of wind farm proposal

The most trusted man in America is now having second thoughts.

Walter Cronkite, the veteran newsman and Martha's Vineyard homeowner who had been featured prominently in ads opposing the nation's first offshore wind farm, yesterday backed off his position, saying the project deserves a full review.

Cronkite, who met with the developer of the proposed wind energy source for the first time on Monday, said he now believes that the heated opposition to the project is "premature," and that he would withhold further judgment until an environmental impact study is complete.

The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, an opposition group that had touted Cronkite's position and used his endorsement in television ads, immediately pulled those ads at Cronkite's request.

While he remains sympathetic to the cause of the alliance, and still shares some of its concerns, Cronkite said he now believes its initial reaction to the project was an "almost hysterical one."

"I must say, as [the wind farm] was presented to me, I had to clench my teeth to be sure I didn't get hysterical," Cronkite said in a phone interview. "It sounded like such a ghastly invasion of this wonderful body of water, which is Nantucket Sound. I will confess, also, that I did not do my own homework as I should have before making the statements. I did not and I can only regret that now."

Cape Wind Associates proposes to construct 130 electricity-generating wind turbines on a 24-square-mile area of Nantucket Sound. The project has polarized residents and environmentalists: While the project portends a new source of clean energy at a time when the nation is grappling with pollution standards and the reliance on foreign oil, many fear it will despoil a pristine water body.

Cronkite, frequently cited in national public opinion polls as the most trusted man in the nation, said he began reconsidering his position last week, after reading that the Bush administration intended to relax Clean Air Act standards for coal-fired power plants -- a move he considered "a terrible blow" to the hope of reducing pollutants in the atmosphere. He invited Jim Gordon, president of Cape Wind, to his home, where they met for nearly two hours on Monday.

Cronkite said he was impressed with the "sincerity and dedication of the principals," and was surprised to discover that 17 state and federal agencies are reviewing the proposal; critics often complain that there is no clear process for regulatory review.

Cronkite also said he found the development to be less damaging visually than he had feared and he was relieved that its proposed location on Horseshoe Shoal is so shallow. With depths between 2 to 40 feet, Gordon said, the shoal is difficult to navigate.

"It is a waste area, really," said Cronkite, of parts of the location. "It's so shallow that it's almost like being on land. . . . Nobody would sail through it."

Said Gordon: "To Mr. Cronkite's credit, he really is keeping an open mind and as he learns more about the project, I'm sure he's thinking about it in the context of the environment and energy security challenges that the Cape and islands and our nation are facing."

Cronkite had found himself becoming not only a symbol for the opposition, but also a lightning rod for environmentalists who viewed him as one of many wealthy, prominent homeowners whose opposition seemed rooted in their own waterfront views and property values. The alliance has sought to dispel that impression, this week announcing that Susan L. Nickerson, the former executive director of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod, joined the group as an environmental coordinator.

Cronkite said he felt particularly overexposed after learning that the alliance was distributing videos of his endorsement in an effort to recruit opponents.

Ernie Corrigan, a spokesman for the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, said Cronkite was never intended to be the sole spokesman for the cause, noting that radio ads featuring historian David McCullough and a pair of fishermen have also been used. "We have no concerns about Walter Cronkite stepping back into a more journalistic position and looking at this from both sides," said Corrigan. When the review is complete, he added, "we think Nantucket Sound will be judged to be an inappropriate location for a project of this type."

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com

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