12 July 2010

Disappearing Vistas of Sandhills' Skies

With each passing year, in a continuous and apparently unending cycle, one of the most exquisite and preeminent values of the Sand Hills is being lost due to a subtle onslaught of intentional changes.

The distinct feature which is slowly, yet certainly disappearing is the wide open, picturesque vistas beneath those exquisitely distinctive sandhill skies ... a scene unfettered by trees, power lines, communications towers and other built constructs which have been foisted across the landscape.

Locations of cellular towers in the western sandhills region. June 2010.

Cell Phone Towers

Most recently there has been a proliferation of cell phone towers here and there, and potentially everywhere so service can always be available. The big, metal towers are primarily placed along the main highways of the area, about the different towns, and other locales where customers may cluster, based upon these things as mapped online.

Each separate company needs to have their own tower, so to serve one market, there are multiple towers at a single place. Valentine, in Cherry County, is a good example. They may have great service, with the subsequent loss of open skies and a mix of electromagnetic signals bouncing about, but they certainly do not market the place using this sort of slogan: "Visit Valentine Where There is Always a Cell Phone Signal ... Never Be Out of Touch With Your Family and Friends in the Heart City."

Communications are obviously essential, and important, but often unconsidered is what the relative ease of placing a phone call of differing importance requires. What was the situation when only land-line phones were available? There is a hidden "cost" for being able to call anywhere from anywhere, anytime.

When it comes to service, the providers want customers to always get a signal and don't really care about vistas, such as an endless expanse of grassland without any obstructions, or conserving dark skies at night, unmarred what-so-ever by any the endless blink-blink-blink of tower lights, now and forever, as powered newly built line of power poles and wire.

Plethora of Lost Vistas

The Sandhills Scenic Byway is a wonderful road, full of scenery such as railroad tracks with fumes spewed by so many diesel engines pulling rail cars carrying coal from a place to the west, to a place to the east, yet imposing noise, fumes and some jobs within the hills. The railroad line pierces directly through the middle of the sand hills, splitting the heart of the region.

There is a multitude of power lines, some center-pivots, intermittent cell phone towers, and other miscellany which represent anything but a scenic view worthy of even a passing consideration.

Atop Wild Horse Hill, in an era more than a thirteen decades in the region's past, Riley E. "Cap" Haskell - of the celebrated Whitewater Ranch - chased wild horses in the 1880s which were roaming freely across the hills' range ... when there were no barbed-wire fences, only a few people scattered around, and settled places were still mostly pending.

The sandy peak got is name from the wild hers. In the modern era, the horses could gather about a fence protecting communications equipment and could be tied to the chain link, until grabbed and taken elsewhere. There is a regular road to the top of this hill. Yet, who would fault the landowner for their leasing the site to add to the ranches' yearly income?

Those wild horses of the past, would now also get missed among the many trees planted atop the dunes to the east, by the U.S. government to create some sort of forest reserve. The intent has been forgotten for decades, but the trees remain.

There is now a cell phone tower near Merritt Reservoir, the significant site of the annual Nebraska Star Party, where a dark place is preferred and because of this condition the selected spot for this event. But with guys fishing, various campers, a business by the dam, cabins, etc. and more et cetera, there was an apparent demand for a tower to get built atop a hill. It now obstructs the view and has added blinking lights to the night skies. The star party folk probably just figure it is the "cost of progress."

On the north side of the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, there is a tower along Highway 83. When you stop at the scenic overlook for some lakes on the refuge, look to the north and there is a tower. I wonder how many migrating fowl have died when the struck the guy wires during a foggy morning, or another time when trying to fly on to a safe haven. Obviously there was no consideration given to being near a wildlife haven when this tower was built.

But there has never been any appropriate consideration given to building another cell phone tower, other than the company determining an appropriate place, signing an agreement where the site owner signs a lease and gets a check, then the ugly thing is installed.

Personally, during my nearly 30 years among the hills, a cell tower has never been a sight to appreciate for being attractive.

One was recently placed atop a butte on the north side of the Niobrara National Scenic River, a place which was established to protect the scenic views. Yet, because of some type of demand, a tower was built, and is readily visible while floating down the river. The local residents had seemed to get by without this service for decade after decade, but something changed in the past few years. Perhaps it was a self-proclaimed environmentalist that came to the valley, built a mega-cabin on what had been prairie ridge - tweaking local zoning regulations - and then upon realizing that there was no cell service, perhaps complained enough until they had service, or signal sufficient to make calls and express their hype about how the river valley needed to be protected from development which would destroy the scenic vistas.

While recently in western Cherry county, one resident said they selected their cell phone provider because it was aggressive about putting up towers.

Towers, with unceasing lights blinking - in a blatant way indicating the endless bustle and hustle and idle chatter representative of a lot of cell phone conversations - get installed one at a time, yet again and again. The things, often with strands of anchor wires, have now marred much of the sandhills.

Other built obstructions include additional communications towers. There is the very tall NETV radio and television tower south of Merriman, and also south of Bassett, where the towering thing with a multitude of guy wires is directly north of a wildlife management area where many sorts of fowl occur, with it likely causing the demise of some birds, which were struck dead, and were unknown fatalities.

There are other local communication towers such as the one at the east end of Farm Flats, in central Cherry county, which have also been placed against the sky. During a recent visit, this particular place was an interesting mix of each era of the sandhills, as viewed from among the puddles of the county road.

There was one of them historic head of longhorn cattle - originally from Fort Niobrara NWR - among the herd of cattle for a modern ranch which were getting water at a windmill, near a working center-pivot irrigation system, and west of the communications tower for the local fire district, atop the east hill. There was every iconic image to indicate the changing times for the entire duration of history for Cherry County, except for a dropped feather from the headdress of a passing Indian.

During a recent visit to Defair Lake WMA, within the Sandhills National Natural Landmark south of Hyannis - designated because of its opportunities to appreciate the sandhills perspective - the horizon was scanned, and a prominent feature to the south was a tower atop the hill, which purpose isn't known but there is was within a portion of land recognized completely the opposite of what the tower conveyed. It was too stormy to determine whether the coal trains along the tracks through Hyannis could be heard, as they are so many times each and every day, unending. Southward of the Hyannis cemetery, within the same government decreed area, is a multi-strand regional powerline.

Scenic values apparently are based a construed perspective, which recognizes values without regard to the reality of the situation as a powerline does not contribute to the scenic value of a place.

South of Nenzel, while heading toward the Niobrara River, is another dramatic regional powerline. Nearby is a clump of cell phone towers.

Powerline through the sandhills, south of Nenzel. May 31, 2010.

In central Brown County, a similar line was an essential reason that the regional power company put a bunch of wind turbines atop the tallest hill south of Ainsworth. The huge things were the first time that power-generation was foisted onto a hill-top setting within the region, and it will probably not be the last. This type of development works only if there are those regional highwires, large capacity power lines suitable for sending the energy developed to some other place, so if more towers get situated, additional towers and lines might follow.

Another dramatic change to the grasslands vista is the planting and volunteer growth of trees in a prairie landscape. After endless plantings nearly everywhere, the question to consider if there is yet a single township within the entire sandhills which does not have one tree, as was the prevalent conditions in historic times? There may not be anyone that could document this detail of the land, though it would certainly be an bit of essential bit of trivia for a so-called "kingdom of grass."

During historic times in the 1870s and 1880s when the original land office surveys were done, there were many places free of any trees. In the surveyors notes, the men particularly indicated where trees occurred, and a map based on their notes shows there were more townships without trees than those with trees. Any arboreal growth was sparse and scattered.

It is probably just the opposite now, though there is nothing useful to accurately determine the extent of tree occurrence. Are there any townships which do not have any tree growth, whether planted or volunteer growth? I don't know how to know. Perhaps someone better informed, could inform me?

Trees on a Prairie Landscape

Homesteaders did not like to be blown by the wind, so also planted trees for their own reasons, yet they got subsidies only when it was a tree claim. Then came the other big influences which were directed towards changing the landscape into something other than what is would naturally be. Consider that the U.S. thought - many decades ago - that a land of sand dunes would be a good place to plant trees, as apparent at McKelvie National Forest, Bessey Forest, and the forest planting west of Hyannis east of Wild Horse Hill.

Ongoing in the modern era, the local natural resources district have continually and endlessly planted trees at the request of ranch land landowners. They won't stop as it is apparently a way for them to make a few dollars. Wind breaks are good, but there are consequences. Planted groves have spread seeds and so there is the volunteer growth which is spreading trees, mostly unabated, across places where prairie grass is the preferred condition. Once again in this situation, the mighty dollar makes the rules, and any impacts are ignored!

Preeminent in this scenario of unwanted trees, are the Loup river system, and the Dismal River. Soon it will soon be - among its western valley - nothing more than a cedar-choked valley, relatively useful for nothing much.

Around Merritt Reservoir, the former prairie of the lands leased to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, have spreading expanses of cedar. There is no attempt to limit the spread of the trees, which are also a hazard that would increase the severity of any uncontrolled fire.

Along the western Niobrara, birds have followed the expansion of the cedars, with Northern Cardinals occurring further west as the years go by with more and more cedars coating the hills along the river, where the land was once covered with grass.

When there is a wild fire across the range - which in the natural scheme is not an if, but when - gets started by one direct strike of lightning, the conflagration will be immense. And the reason why will be the relative inattention to proper land management. Grasses will endure the flames, but the trees will perish and cause greater damage than if the unwanted growth was controlled.

Plethora of Power Lines

Power lines are pervasive because of their necessity, yet they also mar the horizon, and can totally ruin a fine perspective.

Unfettered Skies?

It is simply not possible to determine where to go to the top of a sandy hill, and take the time to gaze about and see nothing but an endless expanse of grass across the rolling dunes, and have a completely natural night sky.

As the natural horizons and associated skies have disappeared - as perhaps this situation has already completely disappeared - any attribution of the sandhills as a distinct place, a "sea of grass" free of obstructions, will be nothing but hype, expressed only by ignorant people mouthing meaningless words about something long gone. A situation ready to forget, and only pertinent in a discussion of what there once had been.

Perhaps this essay is nothing but a verbal exercise indicating one view of the continual changes among the great hills. Maybe only a few people with a long view of time, and that appreciate former times really care. Yet, the loss of an open sky is just one readily obvious indication of the changes being wrought within the sandhills. Consider other prominent changes that have diminished what has been important to many whom want to enjoy a scene of cattle on the range - rather than bison or a unknown absentee land-owner - beneath a cerulean sky dominated by little fluffy clouds. What is important? Is a phone signal more important than a scene which conveys an endless time, free of the troubles of an encroaching and domineering civilization. Only the residents of the sandhills can make those decisions to preserve what is essential and important, as corporations and others could care less for anything other than how to make a buck.

Perhaps water will the next asset to be taken away, bit by bit?