Earlier this month, Jerry Vap, a member of the board of directors of Solutions from the Land, the 25x’25 Alliance’s parent organization, addressed a “Bird & Pollinator Friendly Solar Day” program in Kearney, NE. Vap was part of a workshop panel held during the event, sharing his insights into rural electric cooperative and public power district solar development and its benefits to agriculture and the environment.
The day showed where agriculture is heading into the 21st century, offering a model of energy development, wildlife habitat conservation and water quality protection.
Being celebrated was the largest solar array in Nebraska, which also features landscaping across its 53-acre site that includes hundreds of thousands of pollinator and bird-friendly native flowers and grasses – more than that produced by the native flower gardens of 32,000 homes.
The facility represents a collaboration of Kearney city officials; the Rowe Audubon Center; Fresh Energy, an environmental and renewable energy consulting firm; and SoCore Energy, a developer, owner and operator of home, commercial and industrial solar projects across the country.
Local and regional leaders gathered this month – at a time when Kearney is a national destination for millions of Sandhill cranes – to formerly commemorate and highlight how the solar array is good for birds and wildlife, including pollinators, as well as good for economic development.
Vap, a lifelong conservationist and a past president of the National Association of Conservation Districts, was part of an event that shined a light on design and development approaches – for the land under and around ground-mounted solar arrays – that improve the quality of soil, provide superior stormwater management, offer greater resilience to droughts and downpours, and significantly benefit wildlife.
Vap’s input at the workshop was especially pertinent, given his previous, 15-year tenure on the Nebraska Public Service Commission (he served as chairman on four different occasions during his time on the commission). He has led the 25x’25 Alliance’s Energy for Economic Growth program, working with rural electric cooperatives across the country to help them integrate renewable energy generation into their portfolios.
Given that pollinator populations are declining across the country, the native plantings like those at the Kearney site, are important to maintaining those populations, which ultimately help create the food people eat. And the site is conveniently located next to power lines, eliminating the need to create additional transmission facilities.
For too long, our nation’s working lands and the services they provide have been managed in “silos,” narrowly focusing on either food, habitat, water quality or endangered species objectives and outcomes. Efforts through Solutions from the Land and other forward-thinking advocacy and collaborative interests cite the facility in Kearney as evidence of the new way forward – one by which land is managed in a more integrated way.
A principle that drives Solutions from the Land is that 21st century problems require 21st century solutions. Many of the policies and programs of the past cannot meet the needs of tomorrow. Of course, the new way forward begins with recognizing that to achieve the outcomes wanted and needed, there must be an economic return for those who invest in that path forward.
The event in Kearney offers policy makers a fresh look at ways rural landscapes – including farms, forests, grasslands and others – can be managed and repurposed to deliver production, environmental and economic returns to the country and to the people who work them, the guardians and stewards of America’s working lands. We urge officials at all levels to take note of these growing trends in land management and adopt the policies, programs and funding mechanisms that can bring about the changes needed.