Over the past few months, I’ve found myself walking across the farm fields to the upper banks of the Llano River. It’s here that I take a little time to sit at the feet of the the 500-year-old live oaks that have witnessed changes in their lifetimes that we humans can barely even begin to imagine.
In the past, I’ve stumbled upon the tragic story about the water and us – the one that tells how we, as a people, choose to use 75 percent of the clean drinking waters of Texas on maintaining our urban landscapes. These trees pointed me to this fact 30 years ago during the summer drought of 1980, when they survived and all the newer “settler” trees from other places died of thirst.
Now I find myself immersed by yet another story of potentially tragic proportions: the transmission of “green energy.” Over the next year or so, a handful of Texas utility companies will permanently clearcut approximately 56,000 acres of rural landscapes in an unprecedented effort to bring wind energy from west to east.
For example, 150 miles of industrial 18-story high transmission lines are proposed to be built by the Lower Colorado River Authority from San Angelo to San Antonio. This set of “double circuit 345kV lines” will cut diagonally through the state’s richest biological eco-region, the Texas Hill Country Edwards Plateau. And that’s just one part of a fast-tracked $5 billion project that affects not only our Hill Country Llano River farm but many of our neighbors and communities across the Rolling Plains, Cross Timbers, Blacklands, Coastal Prairies and Chihuahuan Desert regions.
But, just like all tragedies, this one also comes with opportunities.
As a people, we get once-in-a-lifetime chances to make a difference by fulfilling our responsibility to the future. The construction of 2,300 miles of really big, industrial transmission lines, on top of 160-foot wide clearcut rights-of-way, fits into the “forever” category.
After the next few difficult months of expensive legal (and political) wrangling, the Public Utility Commission will decide exactly where and how to allow permanent marks upon our valued open-space lands. Many states across the country are closely watching the transmission battle in Texas and what the outcome might say about the future of “green energy” and where is the “smart” in the grid we build to support it.
When the first wave of these lines are all built, 56,000 acres of open space will be gone. That’s about 90 square miles, and that’s forever. Texas land is 94 percent privately owned, but the state is losing open space faster than any other state in the nation.
Most of the affected landowners around where I live don’t really understand what’s in it for them. Not much has been done on a local level to clearly describe any problem these lines are meant to solve, much less get the ranchland community to buy into a solution that involves condemnation of their lands by utilities with the powers of eminent domain.
If LCRA really must build another one of these industrial monstrosities – and build it now – why not build it with monopoles, which blend a little better into the landscape, instead of the four-legged robot towers? And why not put it along existing, compatible highway or transmission rights-of way instead of cutting up undeveloped open-space Hill Country ranchlands – not to mention mowing down communities of ancient live oaks?
This fast-tracked train seems pretty well designed to leave Texas’ old-time ranching folks behind, with a few dollars in their pockets to make up for the “inconvenience.” Some of these families have been out there since the Alamo, the Civil War and the Indian wars. And all of them know why the Comanche fought so hard for this land.
So what’s the opportunity in this tragedy? Maybe it’s for all of us to see how every farm or ranch is like a self-portrait of its owner and every small town, city, county and state is a reflection of its people and what they value.
The next time we head out for an afternoon drive into the countryside, a weekend getaway or family vacation in a beautiful region such as the Texas Hill Country, we might recognize and appreciate the hard-fought daily battles of land stewardship. And know that we have taken responsibility, starting with our own backyards, to show our respect for those battles and for the land stewards who have gone before us.
Nieman owns the Native American Seed Farm in Junction and is president of the Clear View Alliance, Inc.
For more information, go to www.ClearViewAlliance.org
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