Gov. Sam Brownback defends decision to expand wind-free zone in Flint Hills

? Gov. Sam Brownback on Tuesday defended his decision to expand an area designed to keep commercial wind farms out of the Flint Hills.

Brownback has been criticized by officials from several southeastern counties who said the governor acted without consulting them when he doubled the size of an area to prevent further wind development.

And those officials said his action may have killed a BP wind energy project in their area that had been in the planning stages for years.

Brownback said his decision was based on tourism opportunities by protecting the tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills.

“We are focused on long-term economic growth. And I believe this opportunity for us in the Flint Hills and tourism represents significant near-term and long-term economic growth,” he said.

Brownback this month designated the “Tallgrass Heartland” area, covering 11,000 square miles from Riley and Pottawatomie counties in the north to the state’s southern border. In 2004, then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius discouraged wind development in a portion of the Flint Hills; Brownback’s designation doubled that area.

Cowley County commissioners had been working with BP Wind Energy for years to build a wind farm in the northeast corner of the county, which now falls in the Tallgrass Heartland.

Three state legislators — two Republicans and one Democrat — sent a letter of protest to Brownback, who is a Republican. They said that excluding them from his decision “appears to fly in the face of the concept of open and transparent government.”

Cowley County Administrator Leroy Alsup was at the Flint Hills Visioning Summit on Tuesday where Brownback spoke.

Alsup said he didn’t want to confront the governor about the issue, but hoped in the future “we won’t see that closed process used on other items.”

Brownback noted that BP had publicly stated that it was already considering pulling out of the proposed project in Cowley County before Brownback announced his plan. BP was having trouble finding a power purchaser, a company official had said.

Brownback said he would “continue to work with Cowley County in any way” and that he hoped to announce soon a potential expansion of BP operations elsewhere in Kansas.