When negotiating the lease for a wind development on tribal land north of Ponca City, the Cherokee Nation insisted on preserving the way one particular part of the property looks: the historic Chilocco Indian School.
Built in 1883, the boarding school operated for nearly a century and was seen as a “home and haven to some, reformatory and prison to others,” as described by the Oklahoma Historical Society. No wind turbines will stand within a mile of the campus, which is now abandoned except for curious tourists.
“If they’re visible at all, it will be very minimal,” says Sara Hill, the Cherokee Nation’s secretary for natural resources. “That site is very important to the Cherokee Nation.”
Elsewhere across the 4,000-acre development, just south of the Kansas border, the tribe seemed less concerned with aesthetics. The area remains sparsely populated and Kay County already has a major wind development west of Blackwell.
Just across the Arkansas River, however, a different tribe has fought relentlessly – although unsuccessfully – to stop wind developments, arguing in part that the giant turbines ruin the scenic vistas of the open prairie.
“I object to these companies coming into areas that are pristine and beautiful,” says Osage Nation Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, “and polluting them with their machinery.”
In recent years, Standing Bear’s tribe filed several lawsuits in state and federal court to attack wind developments from multiple angles – arguing in one case that the developments would disturb graves and archaeological sites, and in another case that they would interfere with the tribe’s mineral rights to oil and other natural resources in Osage County.
But the courts have consistently ruled in favor of wind developers, and the first turbines went up west of Pawhuska in November 2014. The county now has more than 90 turbines, with more developments planned.
With legal options apparently exhausted, the tribe will take the argument to “the court of public opinion,” Standing Bear says, hoping for legislative reforms to limit where wind developments can go.
“The prairie,” he says, “is a rare and delicate and endangered ecosystem. And these wind farms are destroying it. We’re going to continue the fight.”
Nonetheless, he supports the right of the Cherokee Nation and other tribes to lure wind developments to their lands outside of Osage County, where the ecosystem may not be so sensitive because the prairie has already been plowed and divided.
Another difference, of course, is that the Cherokee Nation stands to benefit financially from wind development in Kay County, where the developer – PNE Wind – will pay the tribe $1 million a year for use of the land. The Osage Nation, on the other hand, doesn’t get a penny from wind development in Osage County, where the turbines stand on privately owned ranches.
Would the tribe’s opinion change if wind development came to tribal-owned property? Not at all, Standing Bears says.
“These developers have no regard for this ecosystem,” he says. “We listen to ranchers and Native Americans who enjoy the prairie as it is.”
The Chilocco wind development will include 60 turbines and begin operation in 2018, pending approval from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Not only will the Cherokee Nation profit from it, but the turbines will produce “clean energy” that will benefit the global environment, Hill said.
“We take our stewardship responsibilities very seriously,” she says.
Meanwhile, however, the Cherokees will root for the Osages in the fight to stop further wind developments in the neighboring county.
“We support the Osage Nation’s right to make their own decisions,” Hill said, “to do what they feel is best for their nation.”
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