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Wind energy facility in Oklahoma draws rare coalition

PAWHUSKA — It’s not often, if ever, that a cause brings private landowners, conservationists, an American-Indian nation and oil interests together.

But that’s exactly what TradeWind Energy’s industrial wind facility projects on the tallgrass prairie have accomplished. Ranchers, The Nature Conservancy, the Osage Nation, the Osage Minerals Council and others have come together to fight the Kansas-based wind-energy company’s wind farms in Osage County near Pawhuska.

Representatives of the Protect Osage Coalition, a collaboration of 12 local and state entities, said most, if not all, of those actively opposing construction of the wind farms are pro-wind energy. What they are opposed to is the location of TradeWind Energy’s projects, Mustang Run and Osage Wind, and the manner in which the projects are being pursued.

But on the other side, those who have come into conflict with the Osage Nation and its coalition partners over the wind-energy projects say the groups’ arguments are erroneous.

The Osage County Board of Adjustment could make a key decision at its meeting Thursday evening. The board is scheduled to vote on whether to issue a permit that would allow the Mustang Run Wind Project to move forward, a decision the board tabled at an April meeting.

The Osage Nation and the Osage Minerals Council are filing petitions that challenge the board’s authority to issue TradeWind the permit and saying the board should prohibit further construction of Osage Wind, for which the board issued a variance in 2011.

Those who argue in favor of the wind-energy projects say they would benefit the area environmentally and economically in ways that include taxes that will go to a local school district.

Those who oppose the wind farms have different reasons for fighting the developments, which are being pursued through lease agreements with private landowners. Arguments include the wind facilities’ potential impact on the environment and protected species and conflicts with existing oil and gas operations.

Mike Fuhr, state director of The Nature Conservancy, says the large spreads of prairie make the area near Pawhuska a bad location for a wind farm.

Tallgrass prairie used to cover 100 million acres of land from Canada to Mexico, but only 5 percent of that prairie remains, he said. The proposed locations for the wind farms would deplete the resource further by isolating the prairie’s southern lobe.

“The more it gets cut into small pieces, the less it functions,” Fuhr said.

Osage Nation Principal Chief Scott BigHorse noted that the land has historical and spiritual significance to the Osage Nation but said concerns about the developments are being voiced by a variety of sources.

“This is not an Osage Nation concern; this is not Osage Nation versus wind,” BigHorse said. “All players have a broad spectrum of interests.”

The tribe’s concerns include potential dangers the wind farms pose to the tallgrass prairie and eagles in the area and the possibility that they would destroy spiritual and historic artifacts buried within the prairie.

For hundreds of years the Osage Nation traveled between what is now St. Louis, Mo., and Oklahoma hunting buffalo, and a wind farm project is “right in the heart” of those trails, BigHorse said.

Development could destroy the Osage graves and spiritual items that are surely buried along the buffalo trails as well as the prehistoric fossils in the land, he said.

Galen Crum, an Osage Minerals Council member, cites opposition from a totally different perspective. The proposed locations would interfere with existing oil fields’ ability to pump and produce oil, he said.

Cattle ranchers Frederick Drummond and his son Ford Drummond, who now operates the Drummond Ranch, which has been in the family for a century, were approached 12 years ago by a wind company that wanted to lease their land to build a wind farm, they said.

They decided that allowing the development would not be good for the ranch for a number of reasons that include the enormous wind turbines they said likely would have been left behind when the company’s lease expired.

If TradeWind Energy’s wind facility projects continue, some of the Drummonds’ land will be surrounded on three sides by wind turbines. This will affect their property values and could affect the eagles that nest on their property every winter, Ford Drummond said.

As a rancher, Ford Drummond said he’s all for private property rights, but in the case of wind farms, neighbors exerting their property rights will affect his own rights, he said.

Another cattle rancher, Joe Bush, is leasing 5,000 acres of his land to TradeWind, he said.

Bush said he’s not surprised by the pushback from his neighbors, including his cousin Frederick Drummond.

“I understand the turbines are big and have never been here before and are new, and its understandable that people have concerns,” he said.

Bush said he has always taken care of his land and believes that opening up the area to wind energy is the right thing for Oklahoma, both environmentally and economically.

He has no concerns over the decommissioning of the wind turbines when the lease ends. What he is concerned about are the oil wells on his property that have been abandoned for years and have yet to be removed, he said.

There is also no merit in his cousin’s argument that the wind farm would decrease property values by 30 percent, Bush maintains. He believes that precisely because of wind energy, windy spots in Oklahoma are worth more than they were previously.

Bush said he is surprised by the Osage Nation’s opposition to the projects. He has been in contact with tribal leaders and said they have agreed to disagree.

“I respectfully disagree that it’s our tallgrass prairie. I own this part,” Bush said.

Bush said he is proud to live in Osage County.

“I appreciate their listening to me, and I did ask them to respect my rights and approach this from a sense of justice and equity,” Bush said. “I’m not trying to make trouble for them, I’m just trying to use what I own.”