Nearly 80 years ago, 13,000 Japanese-Americans were incarcerated in the southern Idaho desert at Minidoka. They were among the more than 100,000 forced from their West Coast homes when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 during World War II.
Now, a renewable energy company is proposing Idaho’s largest wind farm in the Magic Valley, and former incarcerees, their family members and the National Park Service are raising concerns about its proximity to the Minidoka National Historic Site.
The Lava Ridge Wind Energy Project is proposed on 73,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land in Lincoln, Jerome and Minidoka counties. It would include up to 400 turbines, seven substations and nearly 400 miles of access roads, and would produce as much as 1,000 megawatts of power.
When the Department of the Interior announced the beginning of the public comment period for the project in August, it highlighted the Biden administration’s goal of increasing renewable energy production by permitting 25 gigawatts of onshore renewable energy by 2025.
Shifting the source of electricity from fossil fuels to renewables is key, experts say, to reducing emissions and avoiding the worst effects of climate change.
Friends of Minidoka, a nonprofit, said almost all of the Lava Ridge wind turbines will be visible from the Minidoka National Historic Site, threatening its historic, natural and cultural resources.
Erin Shigaki, a fourth-generation, or Yonsei, Japanese-American from Seattle, is a descendant of Minidoka survivors on both sides of her family. Her father was born at Minidoka, delivered by a horse doctor – a detail she said she likes to highlight to show the conditions at the camp.
Shigaki, who’s on the planning committee for the annual Minidoka Pilgrimage, said this “egregious” part of American history needs to be preserved.
“Once again, we’re being disrespected,” she said. “We’re being pushed to protect this thing that we already had to fight so hard to build – the history itself we’ve had to fight so hard for.”
The National Park Service, which operates the Minidoka National Historic Site, has concerns, too, according to a letter written by Superintendent Wade Vagias.
The letter said 14 turbines are expected to be on the historic boundary of the relocation site, though not on the property of the current historic site, and roughly 324 turbines are likely to be viewable from the visitor center.
“As proposed, the Lava Ridge Project would fundamentally change the psychological and physical feelings of remoteness and isolation one experiences when visiting Minidoka NHS,” the letter states, “as the lands north would be transformed into a large-scale renewable energy site marked by hundreds of wind turbines, transmission towers and associated ancillary infrastructure.”
The desert landscape is integral to the history of Japanese incarceration because the government chose to locate the concentration camps in desolate parts of the country, Shigaki said.
“Everybody who has been willing to talk about their experience mentions in their interviews that it was so hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter, that the dust was inescapable and that all you could see was sagebrush,” she said.
The incarcerees created an irrigation system and grew their own vegetables.
The National Register of Historic Places’ statement of significance for Minidoka says the ruins “are tangible reminders of one of the most serious and painful contradictions of our country’s philosophy of freedom.”
The National Park Service is a “consulting party” to the BLM as it evaluates impacts on historic properties, including Minidoka. Under another law, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the BLM will evaluate the wind project’s implications for wildlife, economics, land use, recreation and treaty rights, among other issues.
The BLM is still in the early stages of analysis for the wind project. It recently extended the public comment period for this phase to Oct. 20. The draft environmental impact statement is likely to be available early next year, after which the agency will open another public comment window.
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