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Osage County wind projects split neighbors and families

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.”

Landowners divided

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.