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Wind versus Tourism


I normally stay out of politics. I understand the physical world better than I understand the world of politics, but I have to point out an observation I made that has political implications. This is a bit old, but it was brought back to mind by the debate over the Renewable Portfolio Standard.

A couple of years ago Governor Brownback created the Tallgrass Heartland, ostensibly as a conservation act. This seemed a bit odd to me because I had not known that Brownback was highly interested in environmental conservation. It was also a bit odd because the only business excluded from this area was wind energy production, and there are lots of businesses that would be more incompatible with tourism. I had previously been under the impression that Republicans did not like the government to pick winners and losers in business, and this appears to be deciding who is going to be a loser.

Kansas has tremendous potential for wind energy development, but not everywhere across the state. The area designated off limits to wind energy development happens to be in the area with the best potential for generating electricity that is also closest to where most of the people live.

Brownback has said, "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."

BP Wind Energy had been pursuing developing wind farms in the area. Wind energy is already competitive with coal, and I doubt that BP would have been interested in developing there if they did not feel they could make money.

So, I'm wondering why Brownback thinks that there is greater economic potential in people paying to come look at grass and cows than there is in developing our energy infrastructure and creating competition between energy producers. Personally, if I owned land in the area, I would appreciate the government not taking away my choice of leasing land to an energy company or trying to get people to pay to come look at my cows. But, even presenting it as a choice is misleading us; it is a false choice. Windmills do not have a big footprint regardless of whether we are talking about cattle ranching or prairie chickens; developing wind and developing tourism are not mutually exclusive. The other side of the coin is that as a consumer, I would not mind if my electricity producers had a little more competition.


Brownback expands area to keep out commercial wind farms

Brownback defends wind farm-free zone decision

Wind power does not strongly affect greater prairie chickens, seven-year study finds

Boundary of Tallgrass Prairie overlaid on a map of wind potential.

Boundary of Tallgrass Prairie overlaid on a map of wind potential. by cg22165


Ken Lassman 4 years, 1 month ago

Chris, Thanks for bringing up a complex issue that is not easily explained. But in an attempt to do that, I'm going to suggest that there may be something additional that helps drive the impulse to keep wind turbines out of most of the Flint Hills, that you have yet to address in your essay. I submit the following evidence for this additional element: The Symphony in the Flint Hills: http://www.symphonyintheflinthills.org/

Imagine the following scenario, unless, of course, you have experienced it personally, in which case you don't have to imagine it: Tickets for watching the Kansas City Symphony go on sale months in advance, and the 5,000 tickets sell out for a hefty sum within hours, despite there being almost no publicity about the event. Hundreds if not thousands of people pay to volunteer to support the event in the weeks and months leading up to the event, ranging from trash pickup, hauling folks, guiding parking, organizing speakers, riding horses and staffing information booths, etc, in addition to vendors coming to sell food, crews hired to set up a huge outdoor sound system and structure for the symphony.

Each year a different site is selected, replete with stories of place, speakers selected to tell about the local natural history and culture, and, after months of preparation, the thousands come watch the spectacle unfold. And all this to watch a live urban based symphony to play in the country under sometimes quite inhospitible conditions? I posit that it is not just the music in a novel setting; it's because the music is in the Flint Hills, which in this part of our country, is about as close to being a mountain or ocean as we have in terms of folks wanting to just go and soak it up. This being Kansas and having the least amount of public space of any state in the US, the Symphony in the Flint Hills is held in a landscape that can take the breath away from strangers around the world who know nothing about our state. It's no wonder that the event is a perennial immediate sellout because folks get to see parts of the hills that they probably wouldn't ever be able to see any other way. Most of those folks don't live in the Flint Hills but have a craving to spend time in them and enjoy those hills that make a flat horizon but drop down from there, creating a sense of vastness that stirs the soul. One of the quotes from a Chinese tourist visiting the Flint Hills goes something to the effect: "This must be what heaven looks like."

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Ken Lassman 4 years, 1 month ago

So very few ranchers would admit to it, even tho they directly benefit: our culture has in a very real sense made the landscapes of the Flint Hills sacred. That sacredness is couched in an interest in cowboy culture, with its rugged, gruff men and a history of strong women as well, choosing a lifestyle that epitomizes much of what we value, particularly in the West, but those hills, those sweeping landscapes and profusion of tallgrasses and wildflowers speaks to the soul directly, and while I know of many other beautiful landscapes in our state, this one is the most commonly known and the one that is hard to ignore, especially since it doesn't have to compete with mountains and oceans.

Wind turbines scattered willy nilly across those hills dispell that quiet, powerful vastness, and while I'm a strong supporter of wind energy and other renewables, I think that keeping the development along the I-70 corridor and points west makes sense for most folks for reasons that have nothing to do with prairie chickens, protecting fossil fuel subsidies, or ranching, for that matter.

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