When wind developments conflict with wildlife and protected areas

September 27, 2021 3:33 am

The Flint Hills of Marshall County are an example of the state’s natural beauty and biodiversity. (Gayla Randel)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Margy Stewart and husband Ron Young are the proprietors of a native-prairie preserve on McDowell Creek and are restoring 70 acres of former crop ground to bottomland tall grass prairie.

Can protections for wildlife coexist with industrial wind turbines? Apparently not in Kansas.

In 2017, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism published siting guidelines for wind energy conversion systems in Kansas.  The guidelines warn developers away from state wildlife areas, the Tall Grass Heartland, migration corridors, wetlands, zones of wildlife concentration, and — above all — from native prairie.

“The agency considers it critically important to protect the integrity of remaining intact prairie habitats in Kansas,” the guidelines state, repeating the admonition throughout the document.

But when these guidelines were published, two wind installations were already operating in the Flint Hills, in native tallgrass prairie; a third was in the meeting-zone between tall and mixed grass prairie in Cloud County; and a fourth (soon to become a fifth and sixth) stretched west of Salina, in the Smoky Hills, through native mixed-grass prairie. In addition, a forest of turbines had gone up south of Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, in the Central Flyway, in Harper, Kingman, Pratt, and Barber Counties. You can see them on this map of wind resources and Wind Energy Conversion Systems existing and under construction in Kansas.

Indeed, Kansas had already earned the dubious honor of hosting one of the country’s 10 “worst-sited wind energy projects for birds” (NextEra’s Ninnescah wind installation in Pratt County), due to the threat posed to endangered Whooping Cranes and other migrating birds, according to the American Bird Conservancy.

If the department hoped its 2017 guidelines would protect wildlife, those hopes were soon dashed.

A wind installation came online in 2019, fragmenting native prairie and degrading prairie chicken habitat in northern Marion and Dickinson Counties. Additional sensitive areas, including stretches of prairie and migration corridors, were targeted in southern Marion, Reno, and McPherson Counties, inspiring fierce local resistance and resulting in a turbine ban in McPherson, a successful protest petition in Reno, and lawsuits by wind developers against Reno County and individual conservationists in Marion County.

Heartbreakingly, right at this moment, machines are blasting through Flint Hills rock in native prairie in Marshall County. Marshall County is one of the 13 core Flint Hills counties but was excluded from the Flint Hills wind moratorium “box.”

NextEra, the same developer that brought us Ninnescah, is now erecting turbines in the Flint Hills portion of Marshall County. The land is “intact high-quality prairie as is indicated by the presence of greater prairie-chickens,” according to Jackie Augustine, prairie chicken expert and executive director of Audubon of Kansas.

The area is dotted with prairie chicken leks and nesting eagles.

Residents of Marshall County made presentations to the Kelly administration, showing the beauty of the landscape, the uniqueness of historical and geological features, and the preciousness of the ecosystem. They implored the Governor to include the Flint Hills of Marshall County in the Flint Hills moratorium. 

The Administration refused.

However, following a public meeting in Marshall County, KDWPT Secretary Brad Loveless assured the residents that the developer would be responsive to their concerns.    “They heard loud and clear that people are worried about impacts on the prairie,” Loveless told them, as reported by Grass & Grain.  “They are going to put turbines on farm ground and out of the prairie,” he assured them.

However, those assurances have come to naught. Neighboring ranchers report at least 11 turbines and miles of roads being constructed in native grassland in Marshall County.

Secretary Loveless is part of an administration that promotes wind energy as an unqualified good.

Nevertheless, he has recently started to publicize the downsides.   

“As a consumer, when I buy wind energy, I would want to know that it is ‘green.’ Renewable energy projects are not ‘green’ if they are sited in a place that has bad impacts on wildlife,”  he told the Nature Conservancy’s Lynn Scarlett in a recently published interview. Loveless added that he opposes “putting large, industrial development in Kansas’s iconic places, like the Flint Hills, the Red Hills, and Smoky Hills.”

You can imagine how those words are heard in Marshall County, where residents daily see the destruction of the Flint Hills out their windows.

The yawning gap between idealistic words and reality on the ground is infuriating and heartbreaking to people trying desperately to preserve the landscapes and localities that they love.

But the gap is also excruciating to wildlife professionals.  

Secretary Loveless knows this well. He participated in a survey of wildlife professionals and then co-authored an article summarizing the results. The survey showed that Kansas’s ever-growing record of guideline violations is mirrored in states across the country. It found what the American Bird Conservancy has been saying for years: Voluntary guidelines, whether federal or state, are not working well — and changes are sorely needed.

We cannot separate the biodiversity crisis from the climate crisis. Purported solutions such as industrial wind turbines, which try to do just that, end up making both situations worse.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Margy Stewart
Margy Stewart

Margy Stewart and her husband, Ron Young, are the caretakers of Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge, a native prairie preserve in the Flint Hills of eastern Geary County, Kansas. They are working to conserve upland prairie and restore former crop fields to bottomland tallgrass prairie. They serve on the board of Prairie Heritage, Inc., a nonprofit that is establishing a Geary County African American History Trail. Together with Prairie Heritage, Inc., they partner with Junction City Juneteenth to make nature experiences available to people of all ages. The website is prairieheritage.org.