Wind turbines proposed near a Japanese American incarceration camp prompt outrage
The Lava Ridge Wind Farm in Idaho would more than double the state’s wind energy output, but at what cost?
David Sakura was 6 years old when the U.S. government imprisoned his family at the Minidoka incarceration camp in the high desert of south-central Idaho. He remembers his mother attempting to create a sense of normality for her children by taking him and his brothers for walks — through sagebrush and past rattlesnakes, armed guards and barbed wire — to picnic in the shade cast by a guard tower.
Now, energy developers are eying those same windy plains. Magic Valley Energy, an affiliate of LS Power, wants to build the 400-turbine Lava Ridge Wind Project, along with associated substations, roads and transmission lines, within and adjacent to Minidoka’s historic footprint. The facility would more than double Idaho’s wind-generating capacity, producing enough power for about 300,000 homes.
But survivors of Minidoka and their descendants fear that the project — with wind turbines taller than the Washington Monument, increased traffic during construction and the noise that accompanies energy production — will fundamentally alter the landscape, part of which is now a national historic site. The incarceration experience was desolate and isolated, they say, and interrupting the landscape with a wind farm will make it harder for visitors to understand what it felt like to be there as a prisoner. “I think it’ll be completely distracting, disruptive and disrespectful,” said Erin Shigaki, an artist whose father was born at Minidoka and whose maternal grandparents met there. (Shigaki also created the photo illustration below.)
Sakura, Shigaki and other members and allies of the Japanese American community are pushing back on the 76,000-acre project, which would be located primarily on Bureau of Land Management land. During World War II, 13,000 people were imprisoned at Minidoka simply because of their ethnicity. Now, as state and federal governments aim to cut carbon emissions, the proposed wind farm raises questions about how the green energy transition is occurring, and whether some sites should be off-limits despite the urgency of climate change.
Some descendants worry that the wind farm will affect how they connect to their family history. Julie Abo, whose mother was incarcerated at Minidoka as a child, visited the site in 2014. She thinks it will be harder to put herself in her mother’s shoes with a wind farm looming nearby. “I was looking out and imagining what it would look like, that they had a similar experience,” Abo said. “I was thinking of my mother being there, looking out, and living in that land and experiencing that land the way I was experiencing it, too.”
There are concerns that the turbines will detract from efforts to educate the broader community about Minidoka, too, so that everyone might remember what happened there. “A big part of telling that story is for people to really feel what it was like to be there so many years ago,” said David Inoue, executive director of the national nonprofit Japanese American Citizens League. He said the camp was put out in the “middle of nowhere” for a reason. “You lose that when you build a wind farm. … If we’re going to retell our history, we want to retell it in the most accurate way that we can.”
Survivors also say the project’s proposed location reinforces a sense of powerlessness. “The project itself is another nail in the coffin of forces beyond our control that really affect who we are as a people,” Sakura said. “We were transported, we were imprisoned by forces beyond our control and now our memory, our spiritual lands, are being assaulted by this voracious appetite of an energy industry and its investors.”
DAVID SAKURA’S SON, Dan, is now spearheading opposition efforts as an advisor for the nonprofit education and preservation organization Friends of Minidoka. “The government would never consider putting hundreds of massive wind towers in the viewshed of Flight 93 National Memorial, the Sand Creek Massacre (National Historic) Site in Colorado or Gettysburg,” Dan Sakura said. He and others would like to see the project moved, or, at the very least, composed of smaller turbines located farther from Minidoka. One hundred and two survivors, many in their 90s, and a handful of descendants sent the BLM a joint statement to that effect in October. And Friends of Minidoka recently became an official consulting party under the National Historic Preservation Act, in order to participate in meetings with the BLM and share information about the project.
Magic Valley Energy thinks a wind farm and Minidoka can coexist. “We’re not looking to deface their site that they hold of great importance,” said Luke Papez, LS Power’s project manager. Still, LS Power already relocated the site once, due to potential impacts to sage grouse habitat and complaints from the residents of Dietrich, Idaho. The new site is less windy but still desirable, Papez said, and it lacks endangered species issues, though environmental groups are concerned about the turbines’ impact on birds of prey.
Magic Valley Energy hosted open houses in the nearby towns of Twin Falls and Shoshone this spring and said the National Park Service, which administers the historic site, has been involved in the process for over a year. The company did not, however, reach out to Friends of Minidoka directly.
Before it can proceed, Magic Valley Energy needs a right of way from the BLM. The authorization process began in fall 2020, as the agency started consultation with the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and coordination with state and local governments, according to a BLM spokesperson. This fall, it began soliciting public comments and holding virtual meetings. Next, the agency will draft an environmental impact statement, which will lay out the project’s predicted repercussions and a range of alternatives. “They always talk about an environmental impact statement, but in this case it should be an emotional impact statement, for the feelings of people,” said Lois Saito, a descendant of a Minidoka survivor. The BLM is expected to issue a decision by early 2023.
In the meantime, many survivors and descendants feel like they’re being forced to choose between fighting climate change and protecting their past. The struggle is reminiscent of one that happened almost a decade ago, when the city of Los Angeles planned a large solar energy project near Manzanar National Historic Site in central California, another former incarceration site. Following opposition, that project was put on indefinite hold. “We certainly recognize the need to do something, that we’re in an existential crisis around global warming and the need to move away from fossil fuels,” Inoue said. “What we’re asking is: Do we always need to be doing these types of projects at the expense of minority communities and our history, our stories?”
Renewable energy experts say planning ahead would help the energy transition. Sarah Mills, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan who studies how to predict opposition to wind and solar projects, said local, state and federal leaders should decide now which landscapes are off-limits to development rather than wait until a developer has already chosen a site. Alice Kaswan, who studies climate justice and climate change policy at the University of San Francisco School of Law, said, “We really don’t want to replicate the distributional injustice that existed under fossil fuels, where communities of color and marginalized populations are experiencing a disproportionate burden from our fossil fuel economy.”
For now, Alice Hikido, who was incarcerated at Minidoka when she was just 9 years old, is participating in the process as best she can: by writing a letter pleading with the BLM to relocate Lava Ridge. Some of her earliest memories in that landscape flood back as she considers what to say. She remembers the heat, the dust and the wind, which blew dirt into every sliver of the room her family shared. “The wind out there is very powerful, that’s for sure,” Hikido said. “My whole feeling is, (how) can you make a choice between renewable energy and this desire to preserve a sacred place? There’s got to be another location.”