Prioritizing a plan for farmland and grassland while considering a possible wind turbine project is important, a state expert says.

A new guide from South Dakota State University Extension covers the best management practices for restoring native grasslands and sensitive sites that are impacted by energy or industrial development. The author, SDSU Extension Range Field Specialist Pete Bauman, said the guide is pointed toward South Dakota landowners who are considering or already have allowed wind development.

Turbines, of course, don’t take up much physical space on farmland, but issues as it relates to grasslands and soil health take place when the turbines are built, as companies build access roads that can make room for large, heavy equipment such as wide-tracked cranes. Those access roads might need leveling and filling to create a temporary or permanent access to the turbine.

The top way to avoid damaging valuable South Dakota native grasslands, according to Bauman? Don’t build there.

“If you’re interested in protecting your important rangelands, the easiest thing to do is just don’t do it,” he said.

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Bauman, stationed in Watertown and previously worked as a land manager for The Nature Conservancy in eastern South Dakota and southwest Minnesota, said helping landowners understand the impacts of large-scale development on prairie land is important. He said energy companies generally try to restore land and resources as closely to the original condition as possible, but an energy company and a farmer might have different ideas on how land should be restored or reclaimed.

“The company might have someone on a skid loader and they’re putting the contours of the land back and they might not be wrong,” Bauman said. “But when the landowner is looking at it and they have a long-term headache because of what they might be left with, whether that’s fragmented grasses or roads with edges in the middle, that’s a reality.”

The 12-page guide published this month is not for or against wind energy developments or turbines, but rather to give landowners an idea of what to look for and what to ask about, if they decide to participate in building wind turbines.

The three priorities for landowners to consider, according to the report, include:

  • understanding the "big picture" of overall wind impacts and siting issues;

  • avoidance of the disturbance of native ecosystems;

  • contract negotiation, mitigation and restoration in areas where avoidance is not practiced.

The topic is becoming increasingly more prevalent in South Dakota, a state that has approved nearly 900 wind turbines to be built since mid-2018, with more than $3 billion in expected construction costs.

Bauman said the idea for the grasslands guide came from rancher friends that would call him about how to handle a question about wind energy and he said it’s something that’s been needed for a while.

He said people need to make their own choices, but should have a plan about how they will deal with a wind company representative and what they might ask for before they sign a binding contract. Doing that can cut down on headaches for the 5-10 years after the turbines are built and the land is settling back in.

“If you're a landowner whose land is getting scratched up, and you’ve signed that document, you’re in a bad spot. … These are conscious decisions that they might not have been as informed on and it’s kind of buyer beware, if you don’t know what to ask for,” Bauman said.

To the credit of the wind companies, Bauman said, many of them will be agreeable to a restoration plan — discussing plant and grass species — worked out when the contract is signed because they don’t want to upset landowners.

Bauman said that his No. 1 suggestion for anyone who is wondering about potentially signing a wind rights agreement with a wind energy company is to visit a place that has a number of turbines in an area and experience them first-hand.

“If you’re considering this, spend a half day really experiencing what it’s like to have these around you,” he said. “Look at what impact they have on the sound and on the land and the soils. It’s important to know exactly what you’re dealing with on the front end.”

Bauman said wind energy companies have done a better job of moving turbines to cropland, and away from important native grasses. Those are worth protecting as long as possible in South Dakota, he said.

“It’s a one-way street,” Bauman said. “We’re not making native prairie anymore. … On the conservation side with native systems, once you make a decision, that decision is made. It’s as permanent as plowing it up.”