MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - Bravo, Governor Brownback! I disagree with our Republican governor on many things -- the elimination of funding for the arts, the squeeze on education, the obstacles to voting (more on those policies in a future column).
But I applaud his stance on the Flint Hills. The Governor is using the power of his office to protect the Flint Hills and its highly productive but endangered ecosystem, the tall grass prairie.
During her time in office, Gov. Sebelius protected a small part of the Flint Hills (including Geary and Riley Counties) from wind development, and Governor Parkinson continued her policy. Sebelius called the off-limits area "the Heart of the Flint Hills." On May 6, 2011, Governor Brownback doubled the protected area, from 4673 to 10,895 square miles, an expanse now stretching to the Oklahoma border. He calls his no-go zone the "Tallgrass Heartland." It is not protected by law -- only by his (like Sebelius's and Parkinson's) high-profile request for voluntary cooperation. Such a gubernatorial call is a powerful shield, however, as life can be miserable for utilities or developers on the wrong side of the state.
In addition, environmental cred is the stock-in-trade of all proponents of wind energy, a supposedly planet-saving alternative to fossil fuels. Nobody involved in its generation wants to be publicly stripped of green credentials. As a result, over the past few years utilities have become increasingly selective in their renewable-energy power-purchase decisions, avoiding badly-sited wind-energy facilities. No reason to get away from dirty coal just to take the rap for more environmental damage! A proposed wind project in the southern Flint Hills county of Cowley never could find a power purchaser -- no utility would agree to purchase electricity produced in such an environmentally sensitive spot.
This concern for the prairie is a huge step forward from the early days of the Wind Rush, when wind developers dangled lease payments in front of landowners and payments-in-lieu-of-taxes in front of communities. There was a heady, fevered atmosphere throughout the Flint Hills, and wind-speeds and proximity to transmission lines seemed the only concerns. Governor Brownback is continuing the process of restoring balance. We want "Economy, Energy, and the Environment," he says. Wind-energy is to be sited on already-disturbed land, and the Flint Hills are to become the destination of eco-tourists and their dollars.
But to Governor Brownback, the Flint Hills are more than just a device to separate visitors from their money. He calls the Flint Hills "an ecological jewel" -- that is, a treasure in the vibrant multiplicity of their plant-animal-human, animate-inanimate relationships. Jim Sherow, mayor of our neighboring community of Manhattan, provides a context within which to place the Governor's characterization of the Flint Hills. In his day job, Sherow is an environmental historian who contributed an excellent essay to the sesquicentennial edition of Kansas History. In that piece, Sherow traces Kansans' water and land policies for the past 150 years and demonstrates our state's overwhelmingly utilitarian attitude toward the natural world. If we couldn't use it, we were willing to lose it -- and if we could use it, we were willing to use it up until we did lose it. In the context of that tradition, the Governor's high evaluation of the Flint Hills leads us forward, beyond utilitarianism. He sees our powerful tall grass prairie as something valuable in itself, not just as something we can use because it's beautiful.
Relationships that are all me-me-me are pretty immature and not likely to turn out well.
Inasmuch as he leads us toward a more reciprocal, grown-up relationship with the land, praise is due to Governor Brownback!