Sitting among a sea of prairie grass in southern Minnesota is a 900-foot-long outcrop of red quartzite rocks covered in thousands of carvings — bison, turtles, and hunting tools — made by Indigenous peoples as far back as 7,000 years ago. It’s the largest group of Indigenous rock carvings in the Midwest. And the site, Jeffers Petroglyphs, is still used today by local native people as a sacred spiritual site for ceremony and prayer. 

But just down the road from the petroglyphs, tension is building over a new renewable energy project that Indigenous and historical groups argue could threaten the experience of the culturally important site.   

Apex Clean Energy, a Virginia-based company that holds the largest portfolio of renewable assets in the United States, is seeking to build a combination wind and solar plant five miles from Jeffers Petroglyphs. First proposed in 2017, the project, known as Big Bend Wind and Red Rock Solar, would be the first hybrid renewable energy facility in Minnesota and one of the biggest wind farms in the state. It would have 55 turbines spread across approximately 27 acres, plus solar panels across 412 acres, on land leased to Apex Clean Energy by local landowners in Cottonwood County. The wind portion of the project would produce 300 megawatts (MW) of electricity, enough to power 114,000 U.S. homes each year; the solar portion would produce up to 60 MW.

The facility, however, is facing criticism from historic preservation officials and native tribes that are concerned the turbines will negatively impact how the Jeffers site is experienced spiritually and religiously. “You’d be able to see the whole project from anywhere on our property,” David Briese, site manager of Jeffers Petroglyphs for the Minnesota Historical Society, told Grist. Eight miles from the site there is already a wind farm with 15 turbines. On a clear day, you can see some of the towers in the distance. In contrast, Apex’s wind turbines would be closer, bigger, and there would be a lot more of them. 

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“You would be looking at a forest of wind turbines,” said Briese. 

The farm was originally supposed to be placed just two miles from the site, but after pushback, Apex Clean Energy moved the turbines to 5.2 miles away. Indigenous and historical preservation groups are asking for the turbines to be placed at least eight miles back from Jeffers Petroglyphs. 

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“We maintain our connection to our higher power through the landscape and through Mother Earth, and there are some places within our landscapes that are just more powerful,” Cheyanne St. John, a historic preservation officer for the Lower Sioux Community, told Grist. “It’s not that our prayers are more significant in one place or another,” she added, “but we know that a place where our ancestors prayed and conducted ceremonies and once inhabited just is more meaningful.” For these communities, the site is a place of worship similar to a church or synagogue.  

An aerial view of Jeffers Petroglyphs rock carvings and prairie.
An aerial view of the Jeffers Petroglyphs site in Comfrey, Minnesota. John Cross

A representative for Apex Clean Energy said the tribes’ voices have been “crucial” in minimizing the impact the project will have on Jeffers Petroglyphs and that the company has  been engaging with Indigenous groups and local residents for several years now. But opponents say this engagement didn’t start until a year into the project, when Apex had already purchased land leases around the area.  

“Once they got to a development stage and secured enough of their assets to move forward with permitting and applications, [that] was when they initiated tribal consultation,” said St. John. 

In addition to concerns over the disruption of Indigenous spiritual and cultural activity, environmentalists and outdoor recreationalists have raised alarms over the renewable energy facility’s placement within an ecologically important tallgrass prairie. Some 400,000 square miles of prairie once covered North America. Less than one percent remains today. The prairie surrounding Jeffers Petroglyphs hosts more than 300 species of plants, including the federally threatened prairie bush clover, as well as countless species of fauna. 

“It’s not just about our grasslands, it’s about our pollinators, our butterflies, our birds,” said Joe Blastic, a prairie conservation manager in Minnesota for The Nature Conservancy. “All these grassland species need grass.” 

Apex said the location shift to five miles away instead of two now requires that it build taller wind turbines with bigger blades to get the same amount of energy production as closer to Jeffers.

St. John, of the Lower Sioux Community, emphasized that these wind turbines are “some of the largest in the industry.” The turbines, from base to tip, will stand 650 feet tall. By comparison, the size of an average commercial wind turbine in the U.S. is currently around 466 feet. 

This isn’t the first proposed project that would affect the ancient site. Across from the petroglyphs is a quartzite mine, and two miles to the west is another one. On windy days, dust blows over from the mines and accumulates on the petroglyphs. This accelerates the growth of lichen, which slowly eats away at the carvings on the rocks. Blasts from the mine also have the potential to cause cracks in the rock surface. Last year, Lorentz Construction, a company that specializes in excavation based in Mankato, Minnesota, tried to open a third quarry in the area — but after public opposition, a one-year moratorium on the project was granted. 

A possible solution to the Big Bend Wind and Red Rock Solar issue, Briese said, is if Apex expanded the solar part of its project and decreased the amount of turbines in the 8-mile buffer zone that Indigenous groups are asking for.

Others feel it would be easy for Apex to choose another site for the project. “There’s 7,700 square miles of land in southwest Minnesota that can take wind towers,” said Tom Sanders, a previous Minnesota Historical Society site manager for Jeffers Petroglyphs and a nearby resident. “There are plenty of places for them to go,” he said. “We all support wind energy, but not here.” Sanders and others are working to get landmark status for the site, and then recognition as a World Heritage site, which would protect it from future proposals like Apex’s. 

Local residents have mixed feelings about the project. Some think Apex’s hybrid renewable facility will provide more economic opportunity for the mostly rural area. Others are looking forward to the payment they would receive from hosting a wind turbine on their land. But there are some that share concerns with the historical society and Indigenous groups about cultural and natural preservation. 

This wouldn’t be the first large-scale utility wind or solar project in the U.S. to damage an Indigenous site. In 2012, the Genesis Solar Energy Project was built along a historical Indigenous trade route in California — the construction of which destroyed the trail and important cultural artifacts. 

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is currently reviewing public comments submitted about the project, and going through the standard review process for permitting. Alongside that, the Lower Sioux Community, Minnesota Historical Society, and Upper Sioux Community are all in a contested case hearing with Apex over Big Bend Wind. The Commission plans to conduct another public comment period and make a decision on the project by 2022. 

“We’re not against wind energy and clean energy,” said St. John. “However, we are against any projects that impact the integrity of our sacred sites, or historic and cultural properties.”