Nature, energy interests clash in Flint Hills symposium at KU

Kansas can have wind energy and the Flint Hills.

That’s what Robert Righter, a research professor specializing in the American West and Environmental History at Southern Methodist University, told a crowd at Kansas University on Friday evening. The group had gathered for a symposium titled “Preservation and Innovation: Climate Change, Agriculture and Wind Energy in the Kansas Flint Hills.”

The Flint Hills pose an environmental dilemma for many green-minded Kansans.

The region is a prime spot to harness wind energy while also being close to powerful transmission lines to carry that energy to the cities that need it. However, it is also holds some of the last remaining tallgrass prairie in the country and is home to dwindling bird populations.

One of five speakers at the symposium, Righter said that if people don’t want wind turbines in their community, then they shouldn’t have them.

“There are hundreds of projects throughout the American West and many of these are going to go through because people want them,” Righter said, noting that there were also plenty of wide, open spaces to place wind turbines.

“All I am saying is build them elsewhere,” Righter said.

Wind developers had to go through a learning process in Kansas, said Mark Lawlor, who was a former project manager for Horizon Wind Energy and is now director of development of Clean Line Energy Partners.

“People saw the Flint Hills, this amazing wide, open space with transmission lines and thought it would be pretty ideal,” Lawlor said.

And, then wind developers learned of the existence of prairie chickens and tallgrass prairie, not to mention issues with land management, economic development and tourism.

“That is a lot of challenges,” Lawlor said.

From there, developers started looking west, where the wind was still good and communities far more welcoming.

“I think the good news for the Flint Hills is that a trend is certainly beginning to move in the other direction,” Lawlor said.

In 2004, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius issued a statement discouraging wind development in what is known as the “Heart of the Flint Hills”, an area that protects more than half of the 9,680 square miles of tallgrass prairie that runs from the Nebraska to Oklahoma borders.

However, wind farms are still being proposed for areas near the Heart of the Flint Hills designation, such as the Caney River Wind Project in Elk County.

Kelly Kindscher, a senior scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey and courtesy professor in KU’s environmental studies program, recognized that wind power has far fewer environmental impacts than coal or nuclear energy. But he argued that wind farms still disturb animal habitat by fragmenting land.

He urged students to get involved in protecting wind farms that would be built in the Flint Hills region.

“My plea — why can’t we have green energy that is green environmentally through and through,” Kindscher said.