SHIDLER — Longtime ties to the prairie are splitting neighbors and families alike in Osage County, home to the southern gateway of one of the last unspoiled ecosystems in North America.
But it’s what’s planned for above the land that’s causing all the friction. At least two wind farms are expected to tower over the rolling hills, limestone outcrops and tallgrass prairie in Osage County. Another project is in the early stages of development.
For the wind companies, the allure of northwestern Osage County is a simple one. It’s windy, and it has ready access to a network of electricity transmission infrastructure built to serve one of the largest oil discoveries in the country, the once-prolific Burbank Field.
Opponents of the two projects by Kansas-based TradeWind Energy Inc. said they endanger the natural beauty of the tallgrass prairie, its fragile ecosystem and the cultural history of the Osage Nation. The area is at the southern edge of the Flint Hills, the last sliver of the natural tallgrass prairie that at one time covered 140 million acres in North America.
“Our concern is these big industrial wind projects are coming into an unfragmented, tallgrass prairie ecosystem that is just the wrong location,” said Bob Hamilton, director of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve for The Nature Conservancy. “It’s not a truly green energy source if it’s going to impact the ecosystem in that way.”
Projects, tensions building
Construction for one of the wind farms, the Osage County Wind Project, has already started. Last week, earthmovers were scraping out turbine pads, access roads and underground collector line routes. A staging area nearby contained about 25 nacelles, the large, school-bus sized boxes that contain the generator and its components.
An adjoining development to the east, Mustang Run, hit a roadblock earlier this month when the Osage County Board of Adjustment denied TradeWind a conditional use permit. The company is appealing the decision in district court.
The Osage Nation has opposed the wind developments from the start, with tribal officials worried about the disturbance of cultural sites and how the 400-foot turbines might affect bald eagles, whose feathers are of prime importance for spiritual and naming ceremonies.
“The eagle is held in high regard within our culture,” said Scott BigHorse, principal chief of the Osage Nation. “We utilize those eagle feathers from the times our little ones are born until the time they are laid to rest.”
But the tribe is also concerned about the wind projects interfering with continued oil and gas development. The Osage Nation, through the Osage Minerals Council and its shareholders, owns the mineral rights for all of Osage County. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs regulates and manages oil and gas production in the county.
Osage County is no stranger to energy development. The Burbank Field rose to prominence in the early 1920s and produced more than 100 million barrels of oil in the early part of that decade. Later operators used water-flooding and now carbon dioxide injection to extract oil and natural gas.
“I understand property rights and ownership, but they forget about our property rights,” BigHorse said. “All of the minerals that lie underneath the surface land belong to the Osage tribe. The oil companies have been out there for 120 years. Now there’s a new industry coming in and they tell us they can do this, but they haven’t been to an area like this with the concentration of oil and gas reserves.”
The natural tension between mineral owners and landowners on the surface isn’t unheard of in Oklahoma, but it’s taking on added significance in Osage County with the proposed wind developments. TradeWind secured leases from more than a dozen landowners for its two projects.
Scores of surrounding landowners have signed letters protesting the developments.
For Joe Bush, leasing to the wind companies made a lot of sense, from both a financial and environmental standpoint. His Tower Hills Ranch covers 5,000 acres and would include more than half of the 68 turbines planned for the Mustang Run project.
“It sits on top of a series of bald hills, and it’s a really windy place,” Bush said, leaning against a fencepost on his property. “The combination of being in a windy location and having the excess transmission lines available made this an attractive spot.”
Bush said the lease payments would help ride out the tough times faced by ranchers like himself, who continually deal with the cyclical nature of the cattle business and periods of prolonged drought. The additional property tax revenue also will help local schools, he said.
“I love Osage County,” Bush said. “This piece of ground is sacred to me. I didn’t enter into this lightly with only dollar signs in my mind. I really think this is the right thing to do to protect the environment. We could use some prosperity.”
Bush, whose great-grandfather, Lee Russell, built the first fence in Osage County, knows his views aren’t shared by some others in his family. His cousin, Frederick Drummond, is adamantly opposed to the wind projects. Frederick Drummond and his son, Ford, own some property to the south of the proposed wind farms.
Ford Drummond, a third-generation rancher, said his family’s property would be surrounded on three sides by wind turbines. He said they will have a devastating impact on property values and deter crop dusters from spraying to prevent the spread of invasive weeds on the tallgrass prairie.
“People call them wind farms, but there’s nothing bucolic about them,” Ford Drummond said. “It’s an industrial process. We’ll lose our open areas, and with those flashing lights we’ll lose our night sky.”
Drummond said TradeWind listened to state officials and agreed not to put developments in the Flint Hills in Kansas.
“This is the last, best piece of the tallgrass prairie,” Drummond said. “These developers have come in and divided neighbors, families, cousins. It’s very hypocritical to develop in Osage County when they’ve agreed not to do it in the Flint Hills in Kansas. This is our piece of the Flint Hills.”
TradeWind representatives said they understand the concerns of some landowners and the tribe in Osage County. But they remain committed to the projects.
Aaron Weigel, director of project development, said TradeWind’s Caney River project in Elk County, Kan., has a similar profile to the projects planned for Osage County. The Caney River wind farm lies just outside the designated “Heart of the Flint Hills,” where wind companies agreed not to develop projects in Kansas.
“It is built and constructed in tallgrass and has active oil and gas,” Weigel said.
“In our view, we believe wind projects are still good and there are good locations to build them. We are sensitive to the locations we build. At the Caney River project, we spent more than $8 million to do conservation and restoration efforts on tallgrass prairie related to that project. It would not be out of the question to us to do similar things with this (Mustang Run) project,” he said.
The Grand River Dam Authority in March signed a 20-year contract to take electricity from the Mustang Run development. Weigel said the turbines and roads needed for the wind farm will cover 2 percent of the 9,000 acres leased for the project.
“We believe that is reasonable for the greater good of affordable, low-cost energy that serves Oklahoma,” Weigel said. “There are people in the county who really want this. Wind projects are something that can create this kind of divisiveness, but they typically are something that counties can be proud of. Once they’re constructed, most people are happy with them and feel like they provide a good benefit for the state and the utilities.”