The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The largest remaining tall-grass prairie in Texas is getting solar panels. Environmentalists can’t stop it.

A solar facility on a 3,594-acre tract of land has environmental groups searching for a way to save what they consider a living museum

The Smiley-Woodfin Native Prairie Grassland is the largest remaining section of tall-grass prairie in Texas. (Cooper Neill for The Washington Post)
7 min

BROOKSTON, Tex. — In northeast Texas near the Oklahoma border, open space stretches for miles. On the surface, it looks like an ideal place to install solar panels.

The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex 90 miles to the southwest is expanding at an extraordinary rate, and there is increasing demand for reliable, clean energy — especially in light of a failure of the electricity grid in the state last year. But a planned solar facility on a 3,594-acre tract of land outside Paris, Tex., has environmental groups searching for a way to save a property they consider a living museum. They’re coming up short.

Just off Highway 82, a historical marker denotes the significance and gives the land a name. The Smiley-Woodfin Native Prairie Grassland is the largest remaining section of tall-grass prairie in the state. It has never been plowed and replaced by crops. Once the soil is disturbed by development, it will no longer be considered pristine prairie.

“There are very, very few of these prehistoric landscapes left, and they really need to be preserved and protected,” said Matt White, the author of “Prairie Time.” “For one person to say ‘Okay, we’re going to erase this for profit’ is tone deaf, extremely shortsighted and downright selfish, actually.”

The potential loss of the prairie is an extreme example of the tug of war between the need for renewable energy and the quest to protect natural landscapes. Groups on each side have a common goal of combating climate change, and although there is a disconnect in certain situations, some collaborations show that the two can work in tandem.

“Given that the build-out of renewable energy is going to require a lot of land, the questions then become: Where will we put these projects, and how do we do that in the most efficient and most ecologically sound way possible?” said Ciaran Clayton, the director of global media for the Nature Conservancy.

The Smiley-Woodfin meadow is part of the tall-grass prairie system that stretches from the Gulf Coast of Texas to Manitoba, Canada. It is one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America. Less than 1 percent of it remains in Texas.

The prairie is so important to environmentalists not only because it is home to dwindling populations of grassland birds and a breeding ground for Monarch butterflies, but also because it sequesters carbon. Prairie grasses pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store the gases in the soil and their roots at a higher rate than does Bermuda grass, a pasture grass that spreads easily and replaces prairie grass nationwide.

Shortly after the Woodfin family sold the land for $5.8 million in 2019, the new owner, Lamar Ranch Ltd., signed a lease for the solar project. Mark Buster, Lamar Ranch’s managing member, was well within his right to do so. Despite the historical marker, there is no conservation easement on the land and regulation in such situations is nearly nonexistent in Texas.

“We have all been scratching our heads about what can be done,” said Kirsti Harms, the executive director of the Native Prairies Association of Texas.

The project, called Mockingbird Solar Center, is being planned by Orsted, an energy company based in Denmark. The site will generate 400 megawatts of alternating current, enough to power 80,000 homes, according to its website. It is expected to be operational by 2024.

Orsted said the project will contribute $25 million in local property taxes while it is underway. A solar lease usually lasts 20 to 30 years and pays an annual dollar amount per acre to the landowner.

“We recognize the importance of this native prairie ecosystem,” said Daniel Willard, a biodiversity specialist at Orsted. “One of the best ways to protect biodiversity is the development of clean energy, and we are taking several steps to ensure that development is done in balance with nature.”

Although Orsted has not contacted the Native Prairies Association of Texas regarding this project, the company said it is working with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that animals such as coyotes and deer still have access to the land. Clayton said the Nature Conservancy is in the “early stages” of working with Orsted and that it is “hopeful that they will implement recommendations to minimize the impacts of the facility on the native prairie.”

The Nature Conservancy debuted a tool in early February that could help avoid situations like this in the future. Site Renewables Right maps out areas in 19 states that the organization identified as best suited for solar panels and wind turbines. The area around the Smiley-Woodfin meadow is marked on the site as having “other biodiversity significance.” That includes silveus dropseed, a globally rare grass. It is also on the state’s birding trail and home to 25 native bee species.

“One solution we’ve identified is deploying renewable-energy projects on previously developed lands such as brownfields sites and former mine lands to minimize land-use conflicts that can cause delays and increase costs,” Clayton said.

The installing of renewable-energy projects on prairies, which are appealing because there is no need to clear trees, has been addressed in other states.

In May 2021, the Nature Conservancy in Michigan published a guide for planting native grasses around solar panels and said that a “mutually beneficial relationship” could occur. The paper also said the organization “discourages removing or altering landscapes with well-established natural areas that are already providing habitat for native pollinators or wildlife in order to install a solar array.”

In Minnesota, solar companies must make a vegetation management plan available to the public and present their site management practices to the Board of Water and Soil Resources if they want to say a project is bird- and pollinator-friendly.

Minnesota also is home to Fresh Energy’s Center for Pollinators in Energy, which helped develop a standard for vegetation on solar sites in the state — the nation’s first. More than a dozen states now use pollinator scorecards, but Texas is not one of them.

“Just like states look to standards, energy buyers can use those standards as well,” said Rob Davis of the electricity cooperative Connexus Energy, which participated in the short documentary “Pollinators, Prairie, and Power” last year. “Any of these big companies can say, ‘Hey, when we’re buying renewable energy, we want projects specifically that are done in a way that creates value for the local community, that use low-impact design, that avoid previously undisturbed lands like remnant prairies.’ ”

One energy buyer, Salesforce, published a report titled “More Than a Megawatt” in October 2020. In it, the company laid out guidelines and questions that can be asked about a project to make sure best practices are being used to protect the land as renewables expand their footprint.

The cloud software company made that initiative global in a commercial that aired during the Olympics and the Super Bowl. In it, the actor Matthew McConaughey journeys from space to earth. The ad was most likely a dig at billionaires who have participated in a new space race.

“So while the others look to the Metaverse in Mars, let’s stay here and restore ours,” McConaughey says in the commercial. “ ’Cause the new frontier? It ain’t rocket science. It’s right here.”

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