By Jason Cruz
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
A wind project near the Minidoka National Historic Site in Southern Idaho is spurring many descendants and former inhabitants of the internment camp to protest the moves taken by the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). A group attended BLM’s latest open house at the Mercer Island Community Center in early March to view the intended construction and discuss the impact it would have on the land, including the site where many Japanese Americans were interned during World War II.
“The building of this wind farm project in Idaho will alter the entire landscape,” explained Stephen Kitajo. “These things would directly impact the Minidoka National Historic site.” Kitajo came to the public open house to voice his opposition to the site, which he believes would encumber a place of remembrance, education, and reflection.
Known as the Lava Ridge Wind Project, BLM is seeking public comment on the draft of its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for a right-of-way grant to construct, operate and maintain, and decommission a wind energy facility on public lands in compliance with federal regulations. Magic Valley Energy, LLC, an affiliate of LS Power, is seeking the grant to build up to 400 wind turbines which will be on approximately 84,000 acres of federal, state, and private land about 25 miles northeast of Twin Falls in south-central Idaho.
The proposed building of the wind farm would be adjacent to the internment camp which housed 13,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. Despite proposed alternatives by BLM to mitigate the exposure to Minidoka, many that make an annual pilgrimage to the site are fuming over the construction.
Kitajo explained the importance of keeping the memory of the site “as is” with nothing but desolate farmland around.
“It’s easy to imagine when they arrived and they get off the train and they get there and they see nothing,” explained Kitajo, reflecting on the many Japanese Americans that were forced out of their homes due to an Executive Order initiated by President Franklin Delanor Roosevelt in February 1942.
Kitajo’s grandparents on his mother’s side were there and started their family at Minidoka. His uncle was born in the internment camp. His other uncle was born shortly after they left the internment camp.
Kitajo has made an annual pilgrimage to Minidoka since 2012 with the exception of the COVID year of 2020.
“I didn’t really know my grandparents,” Kitajo explained of the reasons for his annual journey. “My mom knows nothing about their time [at Minidoka].” His grandparents never discussed being imprisoned at the camp. “They never volunteered the information and it’s like we knew better not to ask.”
“I grew up with this void,” he added. “I heard other parts of their lives but there was a big part that was missing.” For me, it was being more connected with them.
“The alternative that Magic Valley and LS Power want has a hugely significant impact,” said Kitajo as he explained, “[T]here would be wind turbines extending well into the historical footprint of the site and be incredibly visible from the current site that the National Park Service administers as Minidoka National Site.”
“Alternative A, which is conveniently neglected in a lot of literature, is the no action alternative where nothing happens, where they maintain where the land is currently.”
BLM will read the comments and revise its EIS. There was an initial drafting period with similar comments and the recent comment period has been extended to allow for more of the public to review and comment. At the Mercer Island Open House, a court reporter was present to allow for those to dictate their thoughts and comments. One could also write out the comments for the BLM to take.
There were poster board pictures with various depictions of the site, as well as explaining the various concerns and impacts building wind turbines in that area may have on the physical and natural landscape. The current draft of the EIS was available at a table in the room for all to peruse. It was approximately 1,800 pages in multiple, hefty wire bound volumes. Representatives from the National Park Service and BLM were present to answer questions about the project. While the tenor of the conversations were cordial and empathetic, the fact remained that many in attendance were opposed to any building near Minidoka.
“I was there,” recalls Paul Hiroyishi Tomita, who was interned at Minidoka for 16 months. Hiroyoshi, who is in his 80s, is opposed to any work near the site and believes a part of BLM’s decision has to do with what occurred back then.
“When Pearl Harbor occurred, the enemy looked like us,” Hiroyoshi said about the thousands of Japanese Americans that were detained in camps but not Italians or Germans. He also noted that despite families being forced out of their homes, the U.S. government asked Japanese Americans to fight for the U.S. during World War II.
Hiroyoshi is a third generation Japanese American and his grandparents came to the U.S. over 120 years ago.
“Because of the national significance, why would you give up that land so close to that site.” Hiroyoshi said of the BLM’s decision to allow for a private company to request right of way access on the federally-owned land.
“What were they thinking?” said an upset Hiroyoshi. “Don’t they know better?
“There are other parts of Idaho that the BLM has the authority to disperse land.” But Hiroyoshi questioned why BLM did not think of the national park and the potential interference. “Why would they even try when they have other options?”
“Wind is in many places, I don’t know the particulars, but I know they consider this parcel of land to be open and not important and that’s why they thought to sight it there,” said Erin Shigaki, co-chair of the Minidoka Pilgrimage Planning Committee.
“It’s our history. We didn’t ask to go there,” said Hiroyoshi “A lot of people suffered. A lot of people died there.”
Despite the present situation, Hiroyoshi believes that the vocal opposition to building the site will help persuade stakeholders. “I have hope.”
“I would be opposed to that wind farm next to the historic site,” said Eugene Tagawa, a former occupant of Minidoka. “It would ruin the experience for people that visit—for survivors, descendants of survivors.”
Tagawa spent the first three years of his life at Minidoka.
“I feel like I’m representing my parents here,” Tagawa said of attending the public hearing. He is opposed to any building near the Minidoka site. “This is sacred ground.”
Stakeholder outreach was a part of the plan by BLM prior to providing the access to the wind farm company. BLM is conducting public hearings across the Northwest which allow for anyone to come and look at the project, the various proposals and BLM’s assessment of impact it will have on the various stakeholders in the area, which include nature and wildlife. However, many within the Japanese community believe that the attempt to reach out was not good.
“The outreach was poor because they didn’t understand the different pockets of the community,” explained Shigaki. She indicated that her group, as well as others with interests in the development, have enabled extensions for the comment period to allow for more people opposed to the construction of the project near Minidoka to share their opinion.
“Both sides of my family were jailed there from great grandparents to my dad who was born there,” Shigaki added, “It was a real concentration camp.”
The first time that she went on the pilgrimage, she went with their father and “realized the importance of honoring families and ancestors that went through that ordeal and kept enough sanity and leaned on each other enough so that future generations like me could have good lives,” she added, “I feel so indebted to them.”
“I feel like this is part of the AAPI story and a huge part of the American story.”
The project could power up to 350,000 homes, according to BLM Twin Falls District public affairs specialist Heather Tiel-Nelson. The BLM will read every comment given during the open houses and the concerns will play a role in developing the final EIS for the project.
The deadline for public comment is April 20.
For more information on the project, the draft EIS is at https://eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/2013782/510
For more information on the Minidoka Pilgrimage Opposition to the Project see: https://www.minidokapilgrimage.org/about-3
Jason can be reached at email@example.com.