Ever since Primergy Solar announced a proposal for a 1,900-acre industrial scale solar installation outside Hesperus, vocal advocates and opponents have taken to duking it out in the pages of the newspaper.
A group of neighbors calling themselves “Stop Hesperus Solar” has assembled a phalanx of objectors to try to halt the project and has circulated a list of 13 concerns, many of which relate to potential issues with land degradation.
However, the voices of those who own and manage the land upon which this project will sit have not been heard.
If approved, the solar panel installation will occupy 1,924 acres for the next 45 years.
Of that land, Primergy will lease 886 acres from a trust controlled by children of the late state Sen. Jim Isgar – Sarah Newton, Matt Isgar, Andy Isgar and Kate Isgar. The Isgar children inherited the land from their father and grandfather, Art Isgar, who first settled it in the early part of the 20th century. The company will purchase 718 acres from Three Sisters LLC, which is owned by Durango local Sherry Wertz and her two sisters. Primergy will lease 320 acres from the Colorado State Land Board through Fort Lewis College, which manages the land.
The Wertz property has several tenants and about a dozen cattle but no other agricultural outputs.
The Isgar family has about 100 pair of cattle that graze on their land in addition to 180 acres of tillable farm ground. Matt Isgar lives on the property, where he farms alfalfa, oats, wheat, safflower and sometimes pinto beans. His brother, Andy, lives a half mile away, and both intend to stay put after the project is realized.
While some opponents have objected to the placement of solar panels on agricultural land, there will be no decrease in the land’s production. Instead, those involved see solar energy as another product that can be harvested from the landscape.
Each of the three landowners has unique interest in participating in the project. Notably, Primergy approached Wertz after she had put her property on the market. With retirement on the horizon, she had decided to call it quits on managing the property she and her sisters had inherited from their parents in 1998.
Unlike the Isgar family and the college, Wertz is selling her property rather than leasing. She rebuffed any attempt to cast the decision as a ringing endorsement of the mission to create green energy.
“I just did what I had to do as far as selling the property,” she said. “They gave me what I asked.”
For the Isgars’ part, the project is another way to harvest their land and contribute to the country’s green energy transition.
“Our land has provided for our family and others for generations, either through employment, agriculture, livestock and now, clean energy,” the family said in a written statement to The Durango Herald. “Ranchers and Farmers must constantly adapt to their environment. We have been successful because we have diversified when necessary and solar is another opportunity to meet the demands of the changing times.”
Joan Kellogg, the sister of the late senator, concluded a recent opinion column on the matter with the words: “Above all, I know my brother would look at farming the sun as he would any other crop – something to be harvested responsibly, and another way to make a living in an era when family farms and ranches nationwide must work hard to stay afloat.”
“Climate change is real and we all need to be doing what we can to combat this crisis,” Isgar’s eldest child, Sarah Newton said.
For Fort Lewis College, the rationale behind its involvement in the project was threefold. First, the institution wanted to have a say in how the project unfolded; second, it presented a novel opportunity for the college to sample what solar development on the property might look like; and third, Primergy has agreed to provide internship and educational opportunities for students.
Beth LaShell, the director of the Old Fort at Hesperus, said the need to preserve any cultural artifacts on the property that may remain from the residential school that was once there or the time when the land belonged to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, was paramount.
The specific opportunities that will be available to students are unknown given the early stages of the project. LaShell said that discussions with relevant majors, including engineering and environmental studies, will yield clearer answers on the types of internships and learning opportunities that might capture the interest of FLC students.
“I think it’s important to our students,” she said. “We’re very a student-centered college. (Solar) is important to our students, they’re interested in it, they ask questions about it, we’re trying to teach classes on it and this gives them the opportunity to have some unique internships.”
The fraught debate about the project’s future stems largely from a lack of trust between its neighbors and Primergy. Opponents of the project ascribe many of their concerns to a fundamental doubt that the California-based company behind the project can and will uphold the commitments outlined in the permit application.
The three parties that actually own and steward the land upon which the project will sit are scattered in where they stand on this matter. However, all three describe a positive working relationship with Primergy that is characterized by clear communication.
The ecological impact of the project has become the eye of the storm brewing over Hesperus’ solar future. LaShell said she is unsure what restoration will be possible in 45 years when the lease expires.
“We don’t know the answer to that, we’re taking the risk with that, and for me, I’m not going to be working there in 45 years, so we take that discussion very seriously,” she said. “We don’t know.”
Despite the risk, the LaShell and the college are willing to proceed because Primergy has earned their trust. Their decision was informed, in part, by previous experiences.
“The biggest thing they’ve done is tell us the truth,” LaShell said. “Having worked with other solar companies that have approached us over the years, that was a breath of fresh air. That they listened to our concerns and they told us the truth.”
This is not the first time FLC has been approached about an industrial solar project on the Old Fort property. LaShell described a series of “egregious” statements from interested parties in the past, including one that told the college it would just replant the old-growth ponderosa pine forest after the project was done.
Primergy accepted what the college was willing to lease – 320 less-than ideal acres that will avoid the need to clear-cut old growth ponderosa pines – and has worked with the college to meet other demands put forth.
The company’s flexibility and willingness to complete an archaeological study on the site signaled a level of goodwill the college had not encountered with previous developers.
Like LaShell, Wertz has her doubts about the future state of the land.
She does not have complete faith in the company’s ability to uphold its commitment to restore the land “to its original condition including revegetation.”
“I am definitely worried – that's my main concern,” Wertz said. “I understand why the people over there are skeptical. I’m on both sides … I couldn’t say no because of what they want to do with it.”
However, the Isgars, who have a deeper stake in the restoration than Wertz given that they will still own the property in 45 years, are firm in their faith in the company.
“We have full trust in Primergy that they will restore our property for us to use as we wish once the solar project is complete,” the family’s statement read. “We believe solar is a safe and compatible use with our property, not a degradation. We are putting this land to use the best we can and believe solar is a great neighbor to an agricultural, rural community.”
The Isgars said that they take their role as stewards of the land, which has been in the family for three generations, seriously. Over the last several years of working with company, Primergy has earned their trust, too.
In a tightly knit but widely spaced community such as Hesperus, the opponents of the project have organized as a neighborhood.
Their objections force outside observers to ask whether the movement to stop the project is the work of NIMBY – not in my backyard – gatekeepers, or activists pushing back against an attempt to turn their neighborhood in an energy sacrifice zone. Historically, the impacts of energy production have often been foisted upon marginalized communities.
Wertz had little to say on the matter other than that she can empathize with the opponents of the project and shares some of their concerns. LaShell, too, said she shares some concerns and respects their opinion.
The Isgars say that project is a way to be a part of America’s green energy future, which will be a part of slowing climate change and ensuring that their land is viable for agricultural uses going forward.
“I think renewables are the future,” Newton said. “We cannot separate farming from the climate and the environment.”
Perhaps more importantly, the family says that their decision is in line with a blossoming care for the community that stems from a century’s worth of roots in Hesperus.
Newton said that her brother, Matt, chose to run the family farm after high school, forgoing a desire to attend college. Her brother is deeply committed to the landscape, she said, and has no intention of leaving or seeing it degraded.
“We are completely invested in our rural community, not only in farming but three generations have gone to the local elementary school, participated in the local 4-H Club as members and Katie was the club sewing leader for a time,” Newton said. “If you can’t locate Matt or Andy, they are probably helping a neighbor. Matt was also on the Fort Lewis Mesa Volunteer Fire Department. Matt and my late father served on many boards that serve our community.”