America’s Largest Windfarm: an Environmental Disaster?

Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Recent news stories focus on how a conservation easement on a large ranch in northwest Colorado is blocking a major new transmission line, and therefore stalling the enormous Chokecherry-Sierra Madre wind farm in southcentral Wyoming. While these articles make some valid points about the need for renewable energy, they gloss over the reality that this particular wind farm is, and always has been, an environmentally harmful renewable energy project, inappropriately sited in sensitive sage grouse and golden eagle habitats. The reporters therefore skirt perhaps the most important question facing our society as we make the necessary transition from dirty fossil fuels to renewable energy: Are renewable energy projects actually environmentally sustainable, and if not, what does it take to make them so?

This question puts a fine point on the twin looming disasters that humanity has brought upon the Earth: the Climate Crisis and the Biodiversity Crisis. If we leave half the Earth to nature and radically reduce our environmental footprint on the remainder, we might well halt ecosystem collapse and the extinction pandemic in the short term, but if the climate crisis deepens, we could end up on a hot, stormy, lifeless planet anyway — and if we focus myopically on just the reducing fossil fuels, we might revert to a cooler planet only to find it depauperate in plants and animals and ultimately incapable of supporting our own species. The climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis are of equal importance to humans and every other species with which we share this globe, and it would be foolhardy to ignore either in pursuit of solutions for the other.

This is where the LA Times’ article proves short-sighted: It treats the TransWest Express powerline, and the Chokecherry-Sierra Madre wind farm that it serves, as unqualified benefits for the Earth’s environment. In reality, neither would have ever been built in an environmentally sustainable world.

The Chokecherry-Sierra Madre wind farm is sited on a checkerboard of public and private lands that the State of Wyoming originally designated as Core habitats for greater sage grouse. This designation precludes wind farms, because sage grouse avoid tall structures, and therefore building a wind farm ruins sage grouse habitat. And this is a really big wind farm, stretching across hundreds of thousands of acres of prime habitat. The Anschutz Corporation only got permission to site their wind farm in such a problematic locale by goading the Sage Grouse Local Working Group into moving the boundaries of the Core habitats so the Chokecherry-Sierra Madre project was excluded, and thus exempted, from environmental protections.

Add in the heavy losses of golden eagles forecasted for the project, and it’s a biodiversity disaster.

Ensuring that renewable projects don’t cause major environmental problems is a matter of intelligent siting. I am the author of a 2008 report titled Wind Power in Wyoming: Doing it Smart from the Start. This statewide Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping analysis takes into account sensitive wildlife habitats, culturally important landscapes, and other environmental considerations, as well as recommending best practices to minimize impacts in areas of moderate concern.

After this report was published, many wind power companies re-sited their Wyoming wind farms into more environmentally responsible locations. But not Anschutz. The Chokecherry-Sierra Madre wind farm is plowing ahead in a “no-go” red zone, marked for complete exclusion of wind energy projects.

The LA Times seems to blame the Biden administration – and the conservation easement on the Cross Mountain Ranch – for depriving Californians of clean, renewable energy. In reality, Californians should be thankful to both entities for sparing Wyoming open spaces and wildlife habitats from a shoddy project slated to wreak completely unnecessary and unwarranted environmental destruction.

There are plenty of places in Wyoming with abundant wind resources and few if any environmental conflicts, where utility-scale wind farms would do little harm to lands and wildlife and therefore be an unquestionable environmental win.

Beyond this, if policymakers were to shift the focus to building distributed renewables projects instead – like solar arrays on rooftops and parking-lot shade awnings – the vast majority of energy production could occur in developed areas with lack any remaining natural values. That’s a win for the climate, a win for biodiversity, and could be (if focused on helping underserved communities become energy self-sufficient) a win for social justice as well.

Californians have done a lot of good in Wyoming by demanding that electrons they import come solely from renewable sources. It’s choking off the Powder River Basin coal industry, a major win for the climate and for the land as well. Keep up the good work!

Let’s just remember to think critically before backing large-scale renewable projects on public lands. They’re not all environmentally sustainable.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is the Laramie, Wyoming-based Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife on western public lands.