Many business and civic leaders in south-central Kansas are understandably upset with the way Gov. Sam Brownback moved forward with a plan to more than double the area that will be off limits to further wind energy development.
Last week, Brownback announced that he had decided to set aside nearly 11,000 square miles of land in eastern Kansas to create what he called the “Tallgrass Heartland.” The area expands the region designated by former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as the “Heart of the Flint Hills.” The entire area now will be free from further commercial wind farm development.
The press release making the announcement noted that plan was supported by a “broad-based coalition of Flint Hills ranchers, preservationists, wind developers, power companies and government officials.” Unfortunately, that coalition didn’t include officials in some Kansas communities who had been working for years to attract wind farm developments in their areas.
Officials in Cowley County said this week that BP Wind Energy was only a step away from starting construction on a wind farm in the northeast corner of the county. The site would have been in close proximity to the Elk River Wind Facility that went into operation in 2005 and the Caney River Wind Project that is under construction and expected to go on line in January. Now, Cowley County officials say, years of work have been wasted.
Even as they praised efforts to protect the native grassland of the Flint Hills, editorial writers at the Winfield Courier, published in the Cowley County seat, raised ethical questions about the deal Brownback struck with energy producers. The governor, they said, apparently “dickered with BP Wind Energy to drop its project” without consulting any officials, legislators or landowners from Cowley County. The editorial also questioned whether political favoritism was involved in the decision to allow the other wind farms in the area while pulling the plug on the Cowley County project.
In his statement, Brownback said his administration would continue to vigorously support wind power development in other parts of the state. Nonetheless, the decision to simply remove such a large part of the state from any consideration for such projects seems a bit arbitrary.
Protecting what remains of the tallgrass prairie that once covered a vast portion of our region is a good goal, but it seems there may have been some room for wind development compromise on a case-by-case basis. If all wind-power projects are to be banned in this area, it’s only fair that the state apply tough restrictions on all other business or industrial ventures that might harm the pristine prairie.
The Flint Hills often are mentioned as a prime attraction for Kansas tourism. That’s great, but it’s highly doubtful that tourism will provide an economic boom for this region great enough to offset what may be lost in terms of business and industrial development.