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Kansas Wind Blows Alternative Energy Controversy Across the Prairie

Supporters of wind power have long coveted the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas. The hills are one of windiest spots in the United States, and the area has enough infrastructure to carry electricity to urban centers.

Nature lovers also cherish the hills, which are home to some of America's last untouched prairie land. They do not want wind farms to disrupt the region's pristine views.

This difference of opinion has fueled one of the biggest battles over increasing the nation's reliance on renewable energy sources.

2004 was a good year for alternative energy. Three more states joined the 15 that had already set goals to increase the use of such renewable power sources as solar cells, biomass fuel and wind power. Over the next 10 years, federal government spending on renewables may surpass $3 billion, with another $3 billion promised from state governments, and countless initiatives at the local level.

The question in eastern Kansas is whether alternative energy would ruin the prairie…or save it.

Faye Harp, who lives on a nearby farm, says what makes the Flint Hills special are the native tall grasses. "I don't know whether I can describe them or not," she says with a sigh. "[They're] like an ocean wave…[like] amber waves of grain. The grass does the same thing, it just moves with the waves and whips around, and it's just really, really quite pretty."

For centuries, tall grass prairie blanketed the American Midwest, building rich topsoil and providing food and shelter for native species ranging from prairie chickens to bison. As the United States expanded westward in the 1800s, most of that prairie land was transformed into cropland. But the rocky Flint Hills were too hard to plow, so they are still covered today with grasses that can grow taller than a man.

At least, they should be that tall. To make ends meet, many local farmers and ranchers run so many cattle on the prairie that the grasses are overgrazed. Ms. Harp suggests that the farmers could get extra income instead by putting wind farms on their property and "planting" them with sleek white turbines that generate renewable energy. "It wouldn't bother me any," she says. "Matter of fact, I'd like to go see it. I kinda like things like that." Rural communities often support the development of wind farms, since they generate not only power, but also needed revenue for local services and schools.

"We have a lot of wind in Kansas," says Flint Hills rancher Rose Bacon. "There are a lot of places these could be developed." But she does not want any wind farms in eastern Kansas. Ms. Bacon served on the state's Wind and Prairie Task Force, where she vigorously opposed wind power advocates. She contends that that rows of wind turbines, perched on a hill, would blight the landscape over a wide area. She considers the turbines less of an eyesore if they are placed in flat, plowed fields. "I've seen them in Iowa…I've seen them in Minnesota…I've no problem with them," she says. "On the ridges of the Flint Hills, or [where] I have seen them in Wyoming on ridges or in New Mexico on ridges, they are horrendous because they clash so badly with the natural environment."

Concerns such as these have led Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius to delay wind farm construction on 1,000,000 hectares of the Flint Hills. But wind developers warn that, unless they start soon, they will lose out on a federal tax credit that would keep their projects affordable.

Some tallgrass experts argue that blocking wind farms may actually end up harming the places the nature lovers hope to save. Electricity has to come from somewhere, they say…and if not from wind turbines, power will be generated by coal- and gas-fired plants that create emissions that contribute to global warming.

Steve Jones, author of The Last Prairie, believes the relationship is not obvious. "We don't think that every time you turn on a light, you're threatening a toad," he says. But, "when you turn on that light, the coal plant fires up and spews pollutants out into the air, that contributes to acid rain, and acid rain is destroying amphibian populations all over the world." Mr. Jones says that wind farms are kinder to the environment, and that clustering them in a few locations -- even on a ridge in the Flint Hills -- would minimize their impact on overall views. If they generate income for conservation easements, he says they also might reduce overgrazing.

For now, many nature lovers feel torn between supporting renewable energy and keeping the land they love pristine. On a recent sunny afternoon in the Konza Tallgrass Preserve, crickets provided the back-up harmony as a hiker belted out his version of a 1960s hit by The Who. "We can see for miles and miles," he sang, more than a bit off-key. Then, laughing, he swept an arm across the panorama before him and added, "a long ways!" He said he does not want any wind farms within these 3,500 protected hectares. But putting them somewhere in the Flint Hills would be okay with him.

It is a sentiment other hikers share. "Well, I suppose if they were placed in good positions, they would bring electricity and help the farmers," said one man. "There's always room to share technology and land." His companion said she could see a workable compromise: "I could give up some of scenic beauty in the country for windmills and solar energy sources," she commented. "I think we couldn't give them all up, but it wouldn't take all of them."

A Kansas cabinet team is urging the state to help local governments in the Flint Hills region establish guidelines that promote wind power, while protecting the prairie. Meanwhile, the National Commission on Energy Policy is recommending that the federal production tax credit for renewables, which is set to expire next year, be extended to 2009.