Industrial wind turbines don't belong in the Kansas Flint Hills.
The pursuit of renewable energy alternatives is important. However, where we develop renewable energy can be just as important as the need to develop it. For environmental and economic reasons, industrial wind turbines in the Flint Hills would do more harm than good.
The tallgrass prairie once extended from Texas to Manitoba and Kansas to Indiana; it was 142 million acres of grasses as tall as a horse. Today less than 5 percent of the prairie remains, with the vast majority in the Flint Hills, a 14-county area in east-central Kansas and the only place to experience intact, landscape-scale tracts of this once dominant ecosystem. Cattle still graze the same grasses that have grown there for thousands of years.
Scientists compare the environmental importance of the tallgrass prairie to that of the rainforest. Its roots act as a carbon sink, cleansing the air of pollution. Its plants and limestone soils purify rainwater. Per acre, it provides more environmental benefits than any other ecosystem in North America.
At the same time, scientists have warned for years that it is also our most endangered ecosystem. This has prompted groups that support renewable energy elsewhere, such as the Kansas Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy and Audubon of Kansas, to oppose wind turbines in the Flint Hills.
Turbine developments are not wind farms. They are utility plants towering 400 feet high, with strobe lights and spinning blades longer than a Boeing 747.
Foundations must be blasted through limestone to create craters large enough to hold 50 loads of concrete per turbine. Roads must be built to support massive machinery, and the earth must be trenched for transmission lines. Developments planned for the Flint Hills include hundreds of turbines over many miles of ridgelines.
Each complex could have a footprint in excess of 20 square miles — a tremendous consequence relative to the amount of electricity that could be produced. Unfortunately, because of wind's intermittent nature, these developments will not replace traditional sources of electrical generation.
Turbine developments pose a number of concerns unique to the Flint Hills, in part because of the relatively steep hills and fragile nature of the plants and soils. For instance, the area is home to the state's cleanest streams. The hills soak in rain like a sponge, filter it and then slowly release it back to the creeks. The massive equipment used to construct and maintain turbine complexes would damage this filtering system, causing increased erosion and flooding, thus injuring both the hills and the natural architecture and quality of the creeks.
Another unique concern is that the market value of ranchland would decline if turbine complexes were built in the Flint Hills. The visual effect of 400-foot turbines on the skyline cannot be ignored. In a region where more than 50 percent of the market value of property is tied directly to the view and open spaces, anything that disrupts land values will have a negative effect on the agricultural economy.
Preserving the view and agricultural character from industrialization has economic value for local communities. Those who have visited the Flint Hills acknowledge their unique and subtle beauty. Would anyone suggest placing turbines on the edge of the Grand Canyon? The open spaces, grasses, wildflowers and ranching heritage are a source of pride for all Kansans and give the Flint Hills a tremendous potential for nature-based tourism.
The destructive environmental and economic consequences are exacerbated by the fact that these industrial developments are exempt from property tax and that shamefully little of their investment will stay in local communities. Citizens, including ranchers and business owners, have become increasingly vocal in campaigning against Flint Hills industrialization and recently the Wabaunsee County Commissioners voted to prohibit industrial scale turbines in their county.
Optimistic estimates are that wind energy in Kansas could account for one-tenth of 1 percent of our energy needs — a token amount compared with the permanent harm that these complexes would inflict on the remaining tallgrass prairie. Those who destroyed the first 95 percent of the tallgrass prairie undoubtedly did not understand the consequences, but future generations may not be sympathetic to those who would knowingly finish the job.
Simon McGee owns and operates a ranch in the Flint Hills of Wabaunsee County, Kan.