Industrial wind farms aren’t ‘green’ if they destroy our prairie

Mike FuhrThe Nature Conservancy of Oklahoma
Industrial wind farms aren’t ‘green’ if they destroy our prairie

Many have been following the ongoing conflict in Osage County, Oklahoma regarding industrial wind energy development — objections, denied permits, lawsuits, delays. Wildlife conservation is one of the many issues at hand there. Simply put, with regard to conservation, it comes down to the real estate mantra: location, location, location.

Globally, temperate grasslands have experienced drastic declines and they continue to disappear. The prairies here in the central U.S. are the quintessential American landscape but have faced the same pressures as other grasslands. The tallgrass prairies of the eastern Great Plains have been especially hard-hit. What was once over 140 million acres of tallgrass prairie has been seriously degraded by 150 years of conversion to other uses, resulting in less than 4 percent of this landscape remaining today.

The Osage Hills and neighboring Flint Hills of Kansas harbor the largest unfragmented block of tallgrass prairie anywhere in the world. The unfragmented setting and biological richness of the Osage/Flint Hills make it a high priority for conservation. In fact, it is our last chance to work collaboratively with landowners to conserve the tallgrass prairie at a large enough scale that will conserve the many interlocking biological pieces that make a prairie a prairie.

The Nature Conservancy is concerned that if inappropriately located, industrial wind farms pose known threats to natural habitats and certain wildlife populations, which may in turn have significant negative consequences for project developers, financiers, power purchasers, and citizens. We do not want to exacerbate one problem as we try to solve another.

The Osage Hills of Oklahoma are the very same landform with the same rich biological diversity features found in the Flint Hills of Kansas, which is a landscape that wind developers and Kansas Governor Brownback have agreed to avoid disturbing with wind energy development north of our border. Industrial wind developments planned for the Osage Hills that are located in the remaining native tallgrass prairie landscape there, from a conservation science perspective, are in a very poor location for the siting of any major infrastructure, including industrial wind power. For a decade, TNC has urged wind developers to find habitat-friendly locations for their projects. We have supported this by working with partners to develop science-based computer models for Oklahoma that identified those locations that have high impacts to habitats and those with little or no impact to habitats, and making those models available to wind energy developers.

It is inappropriate for the TradeWind projects, and any others planned for Osage County, to be labeled as “green” when they negatively impact the largest patch of unplowed tallgrass prairie left in North America. Together, the projects encompass an estimated 160 turbines, each standing 400-plus feet tall, across more than 17,000 acres west and northwest of Pawhuska.

It is critical that wind developers consider wildlife habitat and other potential constraints very early in their planning process and collaborate with relevant entities to resolve any issues then. Let’s be smart about development that helps Oklahoma and preserve what’s left of our beautiful prairie land.

Mike Fuhr is state director of The Nature Conservancy of Oklahoma. The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. For more, log on to www.nature.org