Collaborative efforts to protect environment, develop wind power have benefited Kansans

October 13, 2021 3:33 am

Yes, wind turbines are tall, Josh Svaty writes. But he argues there may never have been an economic engine that takes so little from the landscape. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

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. Josh Svaty and his wife, Kimberly, own and operate Free State Farms in Ellsworth County, Kansas. He is a senior adviser for the Kansas Advanced Power Alliance.

The Sept. 27 opinion piece, “When wind developments conflict with wildlife and protected areas”, crafts a narrative that suggests wind developers are pushing the boundaries of appropriate development in Kansas, and that state agencies tasked with protecting the resources of Kansas aren’t doing their jobs to stop the developers.

The reality is – to put it judiciously – considerably different than that narrative.

Siting guidelines were drafted by the Kansas Energy Council in 2005. They have served as the baseline for wind development since. Concurrent with the 2005 creation of siting guidelines in 2005, the Sebelius Administration developed the “Heart of the Flint Hills,” a “no-go” zone in eastern Kansas for wind developers that remains open for other forms of development.

In May 2011, the Brownback Administration expanded the “Flint Hills Box” to include all or part of 18 Kansas counties. The Kelly Administration reaffirmed the expansion, known as the “Tallgrass Heartland.” The boundaries of the Tallgrass Heartland, which dramatically increased the initial space, were crafted under the guidance of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, both seeking to protect native intact prairie. Other environmental groups including The Nature Conservancy and Audubon Society were involved in the discussions of the Tallgrass Heartland expansion.

I would challenge anyone to point to a collaborative, voluntary moratorium that has been as successful. Since the expanded Flint Hills box was instituted in 2011, not one commercial-scale wind farm has been built inside the boundaries. Further, thousands of acres of native prairie overgrown with trees have been restored. The wind industry, which had several proposed projects inside the box and millions of dollars invested in those proposed projects, voluntarily abandoned them and the money invested in order to honor the agreement.

Private property rights are fundamental to Kansans. And property rights underpin everything about wind development in Kansas. Wind developers cannot use the right of eminent domain to build a wind farm, per state law. Therefore, only the people who want wind turbines may get them. If you don’t want wind turbines, you won’t ever have to get them.

Opponents may claim “they are just doing it for the money” (and admittedly, compensation of some form has been a part of every contract since, well, the beginning of contracts) but in truth, we don’t know what motivates people to lease their ground for wind development. It may be to diversify income so that stocking rates can decline. It may be in order to have enough income to bring a son or daughter back to the farm operation. It may be because someone simply thinks wind turbines look “cool”. We don’t know, nor do we get to judge – this is a private contract executed between a private landowner and a private company. 

Wind turbines are tall. True. But in the 150 years since settlers displaced indigenous peoples here in Kansas and began the rapid extraction of resources – be they fossil fuels, topsoil, water, timber, grass, or wildlife – there may never have been an economic engine that takes so little from the landscape.

Wind developers select sites based on multiple criteria: a good resource, access to transmission, and more than anything, willing landowners. But even if all three of those criteria are met, developers continue to work through layers of federal, state and local regulations and restrictions. These include robust environmental reviews and FAA clearances. I don’t have wind turbines on our farm in Ellsworth County because of several of those regulatory layers, which is fine. But I’m proud to support the industry and the good work it does in Kansas because I’ve seen firsthand the benefits these wind farms can bring to local economies and the energy mix.

Siting concerns always need to be discussed, but even the most responsible large-scale construction project – wind farm or otherwise – will have neighbors who just don’t want the change. But in Kansas we still respect the right of private property, and that means something.

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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Josh Svaty
Josh Svaty

Josh Svaty and his wife Kimberly own and operate Free State Farms in Ellsworth County, Kansas. He is a senior adviser for the Kansas Advanced Power Alliance.