In southern Idaho, nestled between arid public lands and three cities — Twin Falls, Burley and Jerome — is the Minidoka National Historic Site.

It is one of the places where Japanese Americans were interned after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Robyn Achilles, executive director of Friends of Minidoka, a nonprofit that works on preserving this history, said the site is “incredibly solemn.”

“The Japanese Americans incarcerated there were behind barbed wire but it was really the remoteness from land that was the prison,” she said.

But the high desert landscape is now home to a new controversy: A wind energy farm has been proposed on the sprawl of untouched, publicly owned land facing the historic site — and, if built, it could be the largest wind farm in the country.

Related
How one of Utah’s lawmakers is battling federal agencies over state lands

If approved, Magic Valley Energy will erect 400 wind turbines with blades longer than the wingspan of a Boeing 747, as well as roads, power lines and operational facilities to go along with the project.

Although projects such as this wind farm are seen as essential in tackling climate change, environmentalists have also questioned the role public lands should play in transitioning to clean energy.

Achilles said that the Japanese community and her nonprofit support renewable energy.

“But it is still an environmental justice issue for the Japanese American community who is trying to protect and keep their history intact, as well as you know, for a rural community here in southern Idaho.”

Spanning nearly 200,000 acres, Idaho Attorney General Raúl Labrador said in a press release in April, announcing his opposition to the project, the Lava Ridge wind energy project would disturb waterways, private land in surrounding cities, farmers and hunters.

The proposal, after stirring up local ire, received pushback from other state and federal lawmakers.

Locals protest over ‘700-foot-tall bird-killing mechanical forests’

Some members of the local community have protested the construction of what would be the largest wind towers in the world that would together make it the biggest wind farm in the nation.

Brian Olmstead, a private citizen who is part of the Stop Lava Ridge group, made up of a few thousand members, has opposed the project.

“(In Idaho), we can supply our own power needs and still protect all of our deserts and our mountains and our lifestyle,” Olmstead, a board member of the Idaho Water Resource, said. “I don’t want to see deserts anywhere get chewed up by windmills.”

He has written dozens of letters to the Bureau of Land Management, like the one published online in April, where he says, “We citizens of Magic Valley and Idaho cannot and WILL NOT let this (project) happen!”

“You need to pack up your tents and look for some other place where they want your unreliable energy, believe your ‘boom town’ promises, and like 700-foot-tall bird-killing mechanical forests!”

Tax revenues could jump

There are economic upsides to the project. Boise State economics professor and Energy Policy Institute associate Geoffrey Black, who studied Lava Ridge’s economic impacts with University of Idaho economist Steven Peterson, said that if the project goes through, local taxing districts could see big annual tax payments for decades.

Lincoln County would be home to the largest portion of the wind farm and would see the greatest chunk of the tax revenues. The county specifically — not including its ambulance, cemetery, recreation, school, highway and fire districts — could take in more than $1 million per year.

“Once that wind farm is there, you’ve got that stream of revenue for the life of that wind farm, which we said is 20 years but is probably going to be a lot longer than that,” Black said.

Related
Opinion: Thank you, Rep. Blake Moore, for making public lands more accessible

The BLM has approved 12 renewable energy projects in other Western states but a majority of them were solar, and not the large turbines that are proposed in the Lava Ridge area.

Apart from the Lava Ridge project, two other wind farms are proposed on public lands — the Salmon Falls project in southern Twin Falls County and the Taurus wind farm north of Jerome.

BLM gives locals 4 alternatives

Idaho generates about 17% of its electricity from wind energy set up exclusively on private land, which helps replace fossil fuels, said John Robinson, the public lands director at Idaho Conservation League.

Since the Lava Ridge project is the first proposal on public lands in Idaho, Robinson said he has witnessed interesting questions come up.

He argued that although the area doesn’t have high wildlife density as other areas in Idaho, and is also away from wilderness study areas, “all public lands have value to the local communities.”

After hosting public hearings and receiving comments, the BLM drafted an environmental impact statement in January and offered four alternatives to the original proposal.

The first option called for canceling the project, and the second kept the plan as it was originally without making any changes to the total area — almost twice as big as Boise’s city limits. The BLM’s preferred alternatives, the third and fourth options, would reduce the number, size and acreage occupied by the wind turbines, which would not only minimize the impact on the Minidoka region but also the Wilson Butte Cave, a bubble-like archeological site on the Snake River plain that was first inhabited 10,000 years ago.

Olmstead rejects the smaller options, saying it was a typical bargaining ploy: “It’s just a way to get a foot in the door and do the same thing in the long run,” he said.

But Magic Valley Energy’s Luke Papez, senior director of Project Development, said in an email that “this is a good example of how the public process led by the BLM can lead to a compromise for all sides.”

Magic Valley Energy expects to begin construction on the Lava Ridge wind farm between 2024 and 2025 after completing the permitting process that began last year.

Is the BLM well equipped to lease out land for renewable energy projects?

Stephanie Walsh, president of the Idaho Sustainability and Energy Coalition, has experience in studying environmental impact statements and said that BLM is better at assessing local needs than a private entity.

She said it’s because “it goes through this long, expensive process.”

But Robinson from Idaho Conservation League pointed out a problem in this arduous process: “The guiding documents that help the BLM review and shape and direct and manage projects like these date back to 1985, when (such wind farms) were not technologically feasible,” he said.

So, even though the Minidoka site achieved its national historic site status in the early 2000s, it sits just two miles away from the proposed area of the wind farm.

“The BLM is,” Robinson said, “fairly, ill-prepared in a way to manage a project like this, without some updates.”

In California, for example, the BLM partnered with the state and federal Department of Fish and Wildlife to identify areas appropriate for renewable energy projects, approving more than 10 million acres in 2016 and streamlining permitting.

Related
They’ve spent 2 decades influencing clean energy policy. Here’s where they’re headed next

A recent report from the Nature Conservancy studied the impact that new renewable energy projects pose for natural areas with multiple uses.

The policy recommendations in the report include identifying areas where wind or solar projects can reap maximum benefits while negating the harmful impacts on the local communities, wildlife or cultural resources.

An overhauled framework could have helped avoid the substantive concerns that the BLM and Magic Valley Energy missed, Robinson said.

Energy generated bound for Nevada and California — not Idaho?

Still, local stakeholders, like Olmstead and Achilles, are opposed to this project, especially since the electricity generated is expected to be transported to southern Nevada and California.

But the public lands director at Idaho Conservation League challenged that perception.

“Although some of the purchasers might be in California, once the electricity is in the grid, it’s available for the whole region and ... reduce fossil fuel emissions. We all benefit from that,” he explained.

But because of the strong community opposition, Idaho’s lawmakers, including Sen. Mike Crapo, Sen. Jim Risch, Rep. Mike Simpson, Gov. Brad Little and Lt. Gov. Scott Bedke, expressed their concerns in a letter to BLM’s Idaho state director in February.

“Idahoans cherish the concept of multiple and mixed uses on their public lands. This requires conservation, predictability of use and, most importantly, support from the local communities,” the letter said. “These deep-rooted values are compromised by a piecemeal approach to large-scale generation projects on public lands.”

The Republican lawmakers also said without greater input from the local community, it is “unlikely” they would support the project moving forward.

“Without community support, the BLM risks jeopardizing trust in government, which in turn makes future projects more challenging to accomplish,” they said.

Magic Valley Energy issued a press release in February in response to the letter, saying that the Idaho delegation’s concerns are “thoughtful and important,” while pointing to the alternatives that “avoid, minimize, and mitigate impacts to important resources.”

“This project will help meet the tremendous need for clean energy in Idaho and across the West while bolstering our energy independence,” said Papez, in a recent email to the Deseret News.

“Numerous changes have already been made to the project based on community and stakeholder feedback, and BLM’s preferred alternatives offer a wide range of project configurations to balance the need for clean energy generation with the protection of environmental resources.”

Next steps for the Lava Ridge project

In April, the Friends of Minidoka and National Parks Conservation Association wrote to the BLM, requesting that the 237,000 acres be designated as a Minidoka Area of Critical Environmental Concern, making them off-limits for turbines.

Risch pressed Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland during a Senate Energy Committee hearing in May about what she knew about the project. She responded that the BLM has been engaged with local stakeholders for this project.

“What did you find out so far?” Risch asked repeatedly, referring to the numerous discussions the federal agencies engaged in. Haaland said she didn’t have a “complete readout” and would get back to the senator.

As the Japanese community continues mobilizing against the Lava Ridge project, Achilles, from Friends of Minidoka, said that her organization submitted a nomination to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in May, which included the site as one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the U.S.

Earlier this year, the site was also deemed an eligible area under the National Register of Historic Places, the official list of preservation-worthy sites in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the BLM is reviewing more than 11,000 public comments on the draft Environmental Impact Statement, with a summary set to be released by early summer, said Heather Tiel-Nelson, a BLM spokesperson in an email.

She said that BLM is reviewing the proposal for public lands near Minidoka upon receiving its nomination as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern.

“We have been fighting threat after threat,” said Achilles. “We really just want to create some permanent protections for Minidoka so we’re not constantly fighting this battle.

Related
Is the federal government neglecting the Bears Ears National Monument? Rep. Curtis questions Interior Secretary Haaland