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Kansas Residents Resist Solar Farm Idea for Cheyenne Bottoms

Photograph of a colorful, blue-winged teal as seen at Cheyenne Bottoms, north of Great Bend, Kansas.
Dan Witt
A blue-winged teal, photographed at Cheyenne Bottoms, north of Great Bend in central Kansas.

Green energy keeps growing. In Kansas, plans continue to pop up for even more wind and solar projects. But some residents have put one solar idea on hold. Commentator Rex Buchanan says the pros and cons of renewable energy are playing out in central Kansas.

 Photograph of the Cheyenne Bottoms wildlife refuge, north of Great Bend, in central Kansas. The shallow, marsh-like wetlands has provided a habitat for wildlife and a resting and feeding place for migratory birds for thousands of years.
Cheyenne Bottoms wildlife refuge, north of Great Bend, in central Kansas.


Cheyenne Bottoms is a special place.

Smack in the middle of the state, just north of Great Bend in Barton County, Cheyenne Bottoms is a 41,000 acre, shallow depression that holds water and provides habitat for wildlife, especially for migrating birds, including rare species like whooping cranes. Cheyenne Bottoms has played that role for probably thousands of years. But with the cultivation of ground in the Great Plains, places for birds to stop, rest, and feed are increasingly rare. That makes those that’re left ever more important.

That’s at least one reason folks responded strongly to a proposed solar farm to be located just south of the Bottoms. A Spanish company envisions a 1,500-acre solar farm costing more than $300 million. 1,500 acres. That's about two-and-a-half square miles.

In May, the Barton County Commission put a moratorium on applications for solar farm while it studies their impact.

The proposed solar installation generated opposition from individuals and wildlife groups concerned about its impact on migrating birds. They worry, for example, that migrating birds and insects might confuse the shimmer of solar panels with surface water. Most opponents aren’t opposed to renewable energy like wind and solar. But they do have concerns about the location of these facilities.

In some respects, the Barton County solar farm is a microcosm of the interplay between environmental groups playing itself out across the country and the world. There is widespread agreement, I’d say, that renewable energy, especially renewables that produce electricity, is an important response to fossil fuel depletion and climate change.

At the same time, nothing is free. Including renewable energy and the ways it is used. Wind turbines can take a toll on bird and bat populations. Batteries that go into electric vehicles require minerals like lithium and cobalt that require mining. And solar farms, located in the wrong place, could disrupt bird migrations.

All of which is one way of saying that a renewable energy future won’t be quick and simple. It’ll require tradeoffs, like putting up with mines. And locating wind and solar in places where they’ll do the least damage to wildlife.

If you think this is no big deal, know this. It’s estimated that 30 percent, or nearly three billion birds, have already disappeared from North America since 1970s. Half of U.S. bird species are in decline. One oft-cited reason is habitat destruction. When wind farms are placed in native prairie, for example, the roads and towers disrupt habitat.

Wind and solar capacity is increasing at a faster pace. But the embrace of renewables is complicated. We need to consider all the unintended consequences. Like the impact of a solar farm on migrating birds. We need to make a transition from fossil fuels to renewables, but we need to take the time to do it right. The way they’re doing it at least for now... at a special place in Barton County.


Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer, outdoors enthusiast and director emeritus at the Kansas Geological Survey. He lives in Lawrence.

(Disclosure: While Rex Buchanan has solar panels installed on the roof of his home, he also loves birds.)

Commentator Rex Buchanan is a writer, author and director emeritus at the Kansas Geological Survey.