It had been about five years since I had hiked and camped at the Pawnee Buttes in Northeastern Colorado, so I grabbed my camera and hiking boots and headed out for the weekend.
The Pawnee Buttes are a small section of the Chalk Bluffs plateau, a 100-mile escarpment that runs east and west near the Wyoming and Nebraska borders.
On the drive out I recalled witnessing the buttes with endless open landscapes, wildflowers galore, a profusion of birds and wildlife, and endless stars at night with no light pollution.
What I remembered most was the quiet solitude, listening to the gentle breezes brush though the grass against my tent. When I arrived at the trailhead I was appalled to see windmills as far as the eye could see to the north and west.
Being sadly disappointed, I headed further east in search of more Chalk Bluffs that could afford some good photography. I drove all the way to Sterling and could not find one bit of the plateau without windmills.
Over 75 percent of the formation was visually torn up, with one stretch being close to 40 miles of nothing but windmills. (That's a distance from South Denver to Boulder)! I turned around and went home - there was nothing to see anymore.
Picture the beloved Rocky Mountains with huge wind machines looming up in the background, or imagine the entire north and south rim of the Grand Canyon heavily laden with wind farms.
Aesthetically the greatest threat to Western American landscapes may well be the mass production of wind energy. Every windy mountain range, butte, mesa, plateau or escarpment is in danger of being developed.
Alternative energy is a good idea if done responsibly, but some areas should be kept off limits. We should always ask where and how our energy is being produced before we embrace it whole hardedly.
Most people will never visit these lonely but elegant wind swept places so it is hard to bring about awareness without really spending quality time there.
Many think that there is enough wild land already preserved within our Wilderness and National Park Service sites, but hardly any prairies and grasslands are protected under the current system.
We should take stock of our remaining unprotected natural landscapes, permanently preserve some of the best scenic and biologically diverse public and private lands, and keep them off limits for energy development.
Protecting some of our last remaining escarpments is a good idea or else future generations will never know what a wide open, windswept cliff and grassland environment will look like. We must do better or else many of our iconic western landscapes will be lost forever - only to be replicated by computer generated graphics.
If you look at any wind map for the Western USA, you will see which areas are prime for wind generation. Do all of these areas have to be sacrificed for our endless need for more and more energy
There are other alternatives such as backyard small quiet turbines, or even smaller ones placed on roofs. The problem is no one wants a huge 150-foot windmill in their backyard.
Out of site is better, especially if it is placed on some forsaken desolate land where no one ever goes. Couldn't we construct turbines in locations already developed, like along interstate highways? Placement is everything!
I will not fully and blindly be all for wind energy unless we keep some scenic areas off limits. As long as most Americans won't conserve or curb their own energy use, and as long as our insatiable need for more energy in the future continues, I'm afraid most of our large natural unprotected landscapes in the West will be history.
Scenery and land quality is one reason why many folks move out West, but the very natural things that many are here for is quickly being robbed.
Most people don't realize the mass destruction aesthetically of landscapes when a huge wind farm moves in. They support wind energy whole hardily, but very few will ever go to see the sites, and most expect a tiny wind farm on a few acres.
So the next time you are outside your local café that boasts it's powered by 100 percent wind energy and you are feeling smug about it, (I was guilty too), think of how much land is being torn up and destroyed - and remember we can still do something about it!
Stephen Bendit is a guide and leader for an international hiking and camping tour company, and has spent the last 15 years leading tours through North America.