WARSAW — As a proposal for a 300-megawatt wind farm in northern Benton County continues to gain support from local farmers, a state environmental group has expressed concerns about the potential impact the operation could have on wildlife habitat in the area.
About 50 farmers and landowners in northern Benton County agreed this month to pursue the development of a 300-megawatt wind farm that would install between 100 and 125 wind turbines on their properties. After a second meeting last week, about 20 more farmers in the area agreed to include their land for consideration as the proposal goes forward.
The nearly 70 property owners account for about 20,000 acres of land and are fielding proposals to conduct wind tests in the county to determine if the area is suitable for a wind farm.
The proposal has garnered attention of local environmental groups, which have expressed support of the group's pursuit of renewable energy sources as well as some concerns about the site of the proposed wind farm.
Audubon Missouri, which advocates the conservation and restoration of natural ecosystems for birds and other wildlife, released a statement this week highlighting some concerns the group has with the wind project's proposed location.
Tony Robyn, executive director of Audubon Missouri, said in the statement that while the organization supported the state mandate for the development of renewable energy sources, they were concerned that the proposed farm would cut through prairie land that is home to more than 20 species of wildlife identified as a conservation concern in the state, including the greater prairie chicken, of which less than 100 are estimated to remain in Missouri.
"The development of properly sited wind energy can be an important energy source to help reduce our reliance on fossil based fuels, a known contributor to greenhouse gases, but proposed projects of this scope need to be weighed carefully against other considerations to the local landscape and the people and wildlife that depend on them," the statement said.
Mark Chamberlin, a Cole Camp dairy and chicken farmer who spearheaded efforts for the wind farm, said he has studied wind energy operations in Kansas and Missouri for the last five years as he developed the plan. He said wildlife has not beennegatively affected by wind farms in the cases he reviewed.
He also did not believe the greater prairie chicken was present in the area the group is looking at for the wind farm.
"We've done a lot of this research already," Chamberlin said. "We don't have any prairie chickens here right now."
The Audubon's concerns stemmed from the magnitude of the proposed project as well as the site's proximity to "some of the last remaining prairie landscapes in Missouri."
"Long term impacts need to be considered in detail before decisions are made to move a major project like this forward," Robyn said in the statement. "There in fact may be more appropriate and less sensitive locations to pursue alternative energy."
When Chamberlin brought the proposal forward to the group of property owners this month, he said most everyone recognized the overall environmental benefit the wind farm would bring. He also said the Sierra Club and other conservation groups have been supportive of the plan.
Chamberlin said he was open to working with Audubon Missouri to examine the environmental impact the potential wind farm could have, but he said considering a different location is not an option because those involved are putting up their own property.
"We really can't move it or else it just won't happen," he said.
Melissa Hope, an associate regional representative with Sierra Club, said all potential environmental impacts of the plan should be studied as the proposal moves forward, but she said the Sierra Club supported most efforts to promote renewable energy sources in appropriate areas.
"Generally our wind policy is fairly open ended," Hope said. "We think wind should be developed where it is economically viable."
Chamberlin said because the majority of those involved with the proposal are farmers, they appreciate the environmental concerns associated with the plan. He said he and many other farmers have spent thousands of dollars planting warm season grass to revitalize the prairie habitat, and they depend on the environment as part of their livelihoods.