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OPINION | FRAN ALEXANDER: Trading trees for solar? Not exactly a bright idea

Solar is great, but don’t come with a chainsaw by Fran Alexander | May 31, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.

Last week I got what seemed at first to be a very strange phone call. Lease hounds, also called landmen, have traditionally been people in search of mineral rights owners from whom they can lease minerals for exploration. But this fella wasn't trying to buy up leases for oil, gas or brine in south Arkansas. If so, I would have been a big disappointment to him. Instead, much to my surprise, he wanted to lease surface land.

He was calling me because of a specific 40-acre plot I inherited a long time ago that is apparently in or near other land his company is trying to combine into an 800-acre unit. Or, it'd be called a "unit" if drilling was involved, but I'm not sure what such an area is called when the land is wanted for a solar or wind array.

Under usual circumstances, I'd be excited to know there was a move afoot to establish solar arrays for power development, but in this location there was a catch. So I broke the news to him gently: "That land is covered in forest."

"Oh, no problem," he responded, "You can make a lot more money leasing it for solar arrays than for the timber it grows." He then quoted me a several hundred dollars per acre that could be rolling my way every year. At that point I stopped him and asked, incredulously, if he was saying his company's business plan actually calls for cutting down forests in order to harvest sunshine?

That poor man from Pittsburg (of all places) had no idea to whom he was proposing this insane notion nor that he'd really stepped in it, so to speak. He soon found out, however, as I lectured him that for over 50 years, I have tried to plant trees, save trees, salvage trees, protect trees and, yes, hug trees. I've worked on tree ordinances, gone toe-to-toe with developers (who've called me charming names) and advocated for wilderness preservation as well as for urban forests.

He seemed unmoved when I pointed out to him that if his company was basing its alternative energy business on the need to affect climate in a good way, they have a skewed way of going about it. They'd be "robbing Peter to pay Paul," as we used to say. At that point he again talked about the lease money trumping timber value, and I began wondering if I was talking to a robot.

If we haven't got enough environmental grief to say grace over already, now apparently swooping into the alternate energy business is up-front greenwash (solar!) with a back-door reality (clear-cutting) where money blinds reason. Sadly, I feel certain a lot of landowners will gladly have their timberland leveled for that lease money.

For decades, the huge timber companies have clear-cut and converted mixed species forests into monoculture (single species) tree plantations. Even-age tree farms do not function the same way real forests with intact ecosystems and healthy watersheds do. Nowadays, some government programs as well as numerous organizations are trying to plant trees as fast as possible to offset climate change and boost oxygen production. But young trees don't sequester carbon like large older trees do, and they are hard or impossible to grow if they do not get sustained water. Check out

Forests hold and deliver water to us, but once drought takes hold, forest loss increases at an exponential rate. Global wildfires add to the imbalance of temperature and loss of water captured in soil sets up a chain reaction of failing systems. I have no idea how many 800-acre plots or units they plan to cut, but increasing forest removal will increase climate devastation.

Why would this project even be considered? Once again, it probably goes to the old stand-bys: location-location-location and costs. The further from transmission lines or substations, the more it would cost to hitch solar power production to existing infrastructure. A dutiful search online showed me there's a transmission line one section over from my property so I suspect, forest or no forest, that's why that area is appealing to a power generation company.

Considering the hundreds of thousands of acres of paved or cut over land in this country, it seems a company of this sort could surely find locations without cutting trees. I did not tell the lease hound "no." I told him, "Hell, no."

Print Headline: Seeing the forest


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