Minidoka Pilgrimage Planning Committee members in 2022 at the site. From left to right: Johnnie Narita, Marie Johnston, Yoko Fedorenko, Hana Fedorenko, Erin Shigaki, Stephen Kitajo, Eugene Tagawa. Tagawa is a survivor of Minidoka, all others except Johnston are descendants of the Japanese American incarceration. Photo by Eugene Tagawa

This year, as hundreds of survivors, descendants, and pilgrims travel to Minidoka National Historic Site from July 4 to 7, many are calling on President Biden to halt the construction of the proposed Lava Ridge Wind Project, which they say threatens the remote, solemn quality of the former concentration camp site where over 13,000 Japanese Americans were confined during WWII.

The wind farm would be one most powerful in the U.S. It was proposed on public land and the historic footprint of Minidoka by Magic Valley Energy, an affiliate of New York-based private equity company LS Power. 

On June 6, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved a path forward for the project in a Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), after analysis of alternatives and mitigation measures, and engagement with stakeholders and the public.

Under BLM’s preferred alternative, the massive project could add nearly 250 wind turbines, up to 660 feet tall (taller than the Space Needle), to the landscape. This plan could be finalized in a Record of Decision in early July unless the federal government intervenes; Japanese American advocates are asking for more time to prepare.

Minidoka, located in the Idaho desert, was one of ten sites where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during WWII after being forcibly removed from their homes. Many Minidoka residents came from the Seattle area. The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial, commemorating where the first Japanese Americans were rounded up on the west coast – is part of the Minidoka site.

Today, Minidoka serves as a memorial, educational center, and a place for people to connect with their family history of incarceration. 

“It’s a place to come to understand the trauma and its full immensity, and also a place for healing,” said Mary Tanaka Abo, who spent three years of her childhood in Minidoka and is now in her 80s.

Abo and others opposed to the project say it will negatively impact the visual experience of the site as it was experienced by people who were incarcerated there.

Paul Tomita remembers being taken away from Seattle in April 1942, where he was born and raised, to the Puyallup Assembly Center and then Minidoka, along with his two sisters, parents, and grandmother. He was four years old.

“It was a depressing situation. There was no hope,” Tomita said. It was made worse by his severe asthma and allergy to dust. “The wind blew every day. I hacked and coughed my way for 11 months,” he said. Tomita was able to leave after 11 months when his father got a job with the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner to the CIA. “My mother, she kept me alive, hoping that I would not die there.”

For over 20 years, Tomita has regularly traveled back to Minidoka on pilgrimage.

“A place like Minidoka is a teaching tool,” Tomita said. “It’s to teach America, ‘Hey, you can’t treat people like that. This is what happens, and this is how ugly it was then.’”

Tomita feels insulted by BLM’s decision to approve the project on the site of Minidoka. “Let’s say Minidoka was a former camp for white people, do you think that they would have put that project there? No.” 

Paul Tomita at the 2023 Minidoka Pilgrimage during an Indigenous blessing ceremony. Photo by Ryan Kozu.

Dozens of Erin Shigaki’s relatives on both sides of her family were incarcerated in Minidoka. Her father was born there, delivered by a horse veterinarian instead of a physician – a sobering example of the poor conditions for those incarcerated there. 

Shigaki is co-chair of the Minidoka Pilgrimage Committee. The wind farm, she fears, will prevent pilgrims from being able to experience and understand what their relatives went through in the desert prison camp. “What in that landscape provided solace for them?” she said. “Did they somehow look around them at the Sawtooth Mountains, for example, find some hope, and find some gumption to keep on going?”

Abo, her mother and siblings were forcibly relocated from Alaska to Minidoka. She and her sister have since returned on pilgrimage, along with her daughter. 

“The word ‘desolation’ is very important for a prison camp, and you can’t have industry thriving outside,” Abo said. “To me, a prison is a prison, and it has to look like a prison encampment. How else will people ever understand what it was like to be there?….The land, the sand under your foot, the wind, all that is part of the experience. It’s a memorial to people who suffered and who died.”

Abo always thought the area would remain as she remembered it. “That was, I guess, foolish wishful thinking.”

Compared to the original proposal, BLM’s preferred alternative reduced the number of wind turbines from 400 to 241 and reduced their maximum height to 660 feet, as well as cutting down the size of the project by 50 percent. The nearest turbine would be nine miles away instead of two.

But this is hardly enough of a difference for Japanese American advocates. “There’s still going to be hundreds of them. They’re still gigantic,” said Shigaki. “On a very flat landscape where you can see for miles and miles and miles, yeah, you’re going to be able to see a virtual city Space Needle-sized windmills, and they’re going to be moving, and they’re going to be lit up at night.”

For the past few years, members of the Minidoka Pilgrimage Committee have been educating themselves and the community on the complex BLM process for the project. After the draft EIS came out, they met with BLM and voiced their dissent. 

“Honestly, nothing really has changed from the very beginning to now,” said Shigaki. “We do not feel like they’re taking us seriously.”

Minidoka survivors, descendants and advocates support clean energy like wind farms, Shigaki said. “But we just really have to protect this piece of our story, because it’s everyone’s story, and it’s just part of a really repeating cycle and infatuation with incarceration that this country has.”

Robyn Achilles, executive director of Friends of Minidoka, said in a statement that her organization provided detailed research about the site to the Biden administration, but most of it was ignored.

Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included Minidoka on its list of the country’s top 11 most-endangered historic places, citing the Lava Ridge Project.

The National Park Service has also raised concerns about the project, saying in a statement: “Approaching the site and walking its grounds, visitors would no longer experience the feeling of a rural, undeveloped landscape recalling what Minidoka was like during World War II.”

According to the Japanese American Citizens League in a statement responding to the decision: “The addition of these wind turbines to the viewshed of the Minidoka Site would permanently alter the sense of solemnity appropriate to the recognition and remembrance of the 13,000 people forcibly removed from their homes and incarcerated there only because of their Japanese ancestry.” 

In a press release, Luke Papez, senior director of project development for LS Power, said BLM’s preferred alternative “appears to strike an appropriate balance between the protection of environmental resources and the need for additional domestic energy production,” and would reduce visual impacts to the Minidoka National Historic Site. 

On its website, LS Power says the project will contribute to the Idaho economy and help meet the need for renewable energy in the western United States. 

Advocates are urging Biden to adopt Alternative A in the Record of Decision, taking no action on allowing the wind farm to be built – and to create permanent protection for the site. 

Advocates are also pushing for more time between the release of the final EIS and the Record of Decision, which could come in early July.

Longer term, Friends of Minidoka submitted a nomination to BLM to designate the Minidoka view shed as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). If adopted, this would require BLM to protect the viewshed.

Friends of Minidoka also commissioned a Traditional Cultural Property Study and submitted it to the Idaho State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) in December 2022. That agency determined that the Minidoka viewshed is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Friends of Minidoka notes that according to the BLM’s General Management Plan, “Should the site be determined to be of significant value; eligible for or on the National Register of Historic Places; and/or the above mentioned methods are not considered adequate, the project will be abandoned.” 

Looking ahead, Shigaki worries that allowing the wind farm to be built will set a “dangerous precedent for the future of other Japanese American and BIPOC sites of importance. When will we learn?”

Alongside her disappointment, Abo feels heartened at the efforts of Japanese Americans to fight the wind farm. She believes whatever the results, people must stay engaged. “The fight itself is a memorial,” she said. “If we don’t fight, or if we don’t do all we can, then we have given up.”

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