When Sheppard Air Force Base officials became aware of an alternative energy developer’s plan to build wind farms in nearby Clay County, they launched a quiet campaign to sway public opinion about what they considered to be “encroachment” onto military airspace.
They did this by enlisting the help of a prominent Clay County rancher, by lunching with county commissioners outside of official meetings, by asking a military advocacy group to mail wind farm opponents and by discouraging communication with the news media. Throughout the campaign, which began early this year, employees of Sheppard’s public relations branch reiterated the need for the appearance of impartiality in the matter, but emails obtained by the Times Record News show the base’s public relations team was working behind the scenes to torpedo what they considered to be an imminent danger to Sheppard’s mission.
The newspaper obtained the emails through a federal Freedom of Information request submitted in April. After several delays, the records were provided in November. Most of the pages of the 140-page document are redacted to some degree and 27 pages are fully redacted.
In late March, two high-ranking Sheppard officials told attendees of a town hall meeting in Henrietta that the proposed installation of wind turbines within 25 miles of the base would interfere with fighter pilot training, especially on days with inclement weather. If pilots couldn’t train at Sheppard, they said, the Department of Defense could opt to move the training operation somewhere else, an act that could cripple the economies of Wichita Falls and other nearby cities.
Since then, wind farm development in Clay County has become a divisive issue in North Texas. Sheppard and Wichita Falls officials have testified at Texas House and Senate hearings on the matter, and State Rep. James Frank (R-Wichita Falls) previously has said he’s considering filing legislation that would limit tax relief to energy projects that encroach on military turf. The Federal Aviation Administration currently is vetting at least one of the Clay County projects.
Jimmy Horn, of wind energy developer Horn Wind LLC, has said he’s “not trying to kill Sheppard” and that there’s little evidence to support the claim that new developments would stifle Sheppard’s training operations.
Leading up to the town hall meeting, Sheppard’s public relations team launched the campaign to block wind energy development in Clay County. On March 16, area rancher Emry Birdwell sent a message to George Woodward, Sheppard’s director of public affairs, to tell him that an important agreement had just struck between a landowner and the wind developer. Birdwell suggested to Woodward that he meet with the Henrietta Chamber of Commerce, Petrolia’s school board and other local government organizations to get Sheppard’s message out.
“It needs to be pretty quick, I heard a major piece of land was signed up recently in Byers,” Birdwell wrote to Woodward. In another message, Birdwell sent an email that read, “George, I’m going to contact the two (county) commissioners who are against windmills, they may contact you. Also when you schedule (a) meeting with commissioners would you let me know and we will make sure the local paper is there to cover it.”
Shortly after, Birdwell helped connect Sheppard officials with Forrest Baldwin, a leader of advocacy group Clay County Against Wind Farms. At Birdwell’s suggestion, Baldwin send a message to Debi Smith, another base public relations employee, in which he provided Smith a mailing list of 889 people owning 100 acres or more of property in Clay County.
Smith thanked Baldwin for the “great start.”
On March 21, Smith and Birdwell scheduled a lunch at Birdwell’s home where ranchers, two Clay County commissioners and others would be briefed on the military’s concern about wind farm developments. Though Smith said in another email that there should be no “perception of conflict or federal endorsement” at the event, she also wrote that a Sheppard colonel would be telling landowners about how wind farm developments would negatively impact “not only Sheppard’s mission, but the ability for any aircraft (small private planes, life evacuation on helicopters, Texas oil pipeline survey).”
Because state open meetings law forbids all four of a county’s commissioners from meeting at one time without a publicly published notice, the base strategically planned to have only two commissioners at the Birdwell lunch. Initially the idea was floated that the two invited commissioners would have opposing views on wind farm development in the area – one for and one against – but another email shows that all of the county commissioners opposed new projects.
While military officials were gearing up to battle the developments, a newspaper reporter at the Clay County Leader caught wind of the activity. The reporter contacted Smith, and after she “held him off,” she sent an email to Birdwell to urge him not to speak to the media.
“Please, if possible, we are going to hold off on media contacts for the time being,” she wrote to Birdwell. “I held (the reporter) off with some basic information and let him know we are researching the issue ourselves.” She also asked that they communicate by telephone, as “emails can be misinterpreted and I don’t mean to make you feel badly in any way, we just need time to prepare our presentation and make the connections with Clay County officials first. Then the media will come into play to spread the word” about upcoming presentations on the subject.
At the same time, the base also sought to keep developer Horn in the dark about meetings with important figures in Clay County. In an email sent by Smith to public affairs director Woodward, Smith wrote that a Sheppard colonel would speak with Horn by telephone about the base’s concerns, but “he won’t mention to Mr. Horn about the rancher meeting.”
In an email sent by Col. Gregory Keeton on March 24, Keeton told recipients that the lunch meeting would stress “the weather difficulties we would encounter as well as the deconfliction issues we would face. I have intentionally made sure we discuss the impact we can have with deconflicting from civilian aircraft.”
Keeton mentioned that the slides used in the presentation would be “more picture oriented instead of overly wordy.” In another email, an individual whose name was withheld referred to the picture-heavy slides as being “farmer-friendly.”
Documents show that Smith and Woodward coordinated an advocacy plan for Sheppard that would allow military officials to block wind farm development while still maintaining the perception of the “division between informing and advocating.” Smith then sent a message on March 24 to Danny Cremeens, a president of Fidelity Bank and vice chair of the non-profit Sheppard Military Affairs Committee, a base advocacy group. Though internal emails reiterated the base’s desire to be viewed as objective on the issue, Smith asked Cremeens to help their cause.
Smith attached to the message a list of local people who had signed an anti-wind farm petition and asked if Cremeens’ organization could do a mass mailing on the base’s behalf. “The clearest way to delay” wind energy development, she added, appeared to be an injunction for an aviation safety study – “is that something SMAC could engage?” she asked.
It’s unclear whether Horn Wind was subjected to any formal injunction pending the completion of that study, but the company told the Times Record News earlier this year that a consulting company it hired cleared the projects through what is referred to as an “obstruction analysis.”
The FAA and the Department of Defense’s siting clearinghouse use formal processes to gauge the likelihood that an energy development would unduly interfere with a military mission. The DoD specifically hears hundreds of cases every year but rarely denies developers’ applications.