‘Going solar isn’t green if you cut down tons of trees’: Six Flags ‘to level 66 acres of trees’ to make room for solar panels

It’s music to an environmentalist’s ears: Six Flags Great Adventure wants to power its park with solar energy by installing a solar panel farm on a portion of the 134 acres of land it owns in Jackson, New Jersey. But as the company spells out its plan, the needle scratches across the record: To make room for the panels, it plans to level 66 acres of trees.

The plan, the largest solar installation in New Jersey, will generate 21.4 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the amusement park’s Garden State facility. The company projects that the initiative will eliminate approximately 215,000 tons of CO2emissions over 15 years, a result that it says more than compensates for the loss of trees.

“We are excited about the fact that this project will reduce carbon emissions by 31 times more than the trees and shrubs that will be removed, and that we will become the world’s first solar-powered theme park,” said Kristin Siebeneicher, communications manager for Six Flags Great Adventure and Safari. She added, “This project is a positive for the environment and will not harm the habitats of threatened or endangered species, nor impair protected wetlands or watersheds.” (Six Flags says that at the moment, it does not plan to carry out similar projects at its other parks.)

Local residents and environmental groups—including Clean Water Action,Crosswicks/Doctors Creek Watershed Association, Environment New Jersey, NJ Conservation Foundation, Save Barnegat Bay, and the Sierra Clubbeg to differ, claiming that razing nearly 15,000 trees will adversely impact water quality, air quality and sound quality; decrease the wildlife population; and affect biodiversity, as the state loses a section of forest known as the Pine Barrens. “As green as solar is, you don’t get a pass for chopping down a forest,” said David Pringle, campaign director for Clean Water Action. “If they kept the forest and put the panels in a parking lot, you get all the benefits of solar without any of the costs of clear-cutting the forest.” State officials even offered to buy the land to stop Six Flags from deforesting it, but the company declined their offer.

Those opposed to the project say if Six Flags really wanted an environmentally friendly project, it would have placed the lion’s share of the solar panels on one of its parking lots, creating so-called canopies—structures with panels placed on top, so cars can park underneath. Company officials say most of the lots were unsuitable, citing safety issues, special events held there, and future development plans that might utilize that space. Critics counter that the company just didn’t want to give up parking spaces, as the lots often fill to capacity in peak season, and in the off season, a portion of them is rented out to Amazon, which parks trailers there to serve as warehouse space.

It’s hard to know precisely why Six Flags is turning to solar: whether it’s to be good environmental citizens, to save money on energy costs, or to generate good public relations. Whatever the case, it’s investing in using green energy, which seems like a good thing. But like other solar farm projects cropping up across the country, to go green by leveling trees is to view energy use in isolation from other environmental issues. It’s like the lumber company that insists its suppliers practice sustainable forestry only to find its vendors are replanting forests with non-native trees. Or the company that moves its headquarters from the city to the suburbs to construct a LEED-certified building, but all its employees must now drive to work instead of walking or biking.