16 June 2017

Ranchers Oppose R-Project Through Sandhills

Article copyright 2017 James E. Ducey. All rights reserved. This article may not be reissued in any print or online publication without written permission.

Opposition to the proposed R-project was very evident at a meeting where public comments were presented on a draft environmental impact statement for this industrial transmission line that is proposed to be built through the sand hills region.

Many attended and a fewer number spoke. Most of the speakers were associated with the ranch community. It was evident that the majority of the ranch country people that attended do not want this powerline built across a unique landscape. For some, the indicated route would traverse their property. And they do not accept the imposition of something unwanted on range land they have carefully managed to conserve grassland resources that include cattle forage, native vegetation, wildbirds and other natural features.

The meeting at the Thedford fair grounds building was hosted by staff of the Nebraska field office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), with Eliza Hines their primary spokesperson. Biologist Robert Harms was also present.

The three documents being considered comprise about 1500 pages. An initial speaker asked why the documents associated with this public review were not made available in Thomas and Blaine counties, and that it also needs to be readily available at Valentine.

There was a limit of three-minutes imposed on speakers, to which one rancher responded: “We didn’t drive 30 miles for three minutes” in which to speak. Others drove much larger distances. Because of the need for the court reporter to properly record the dialogue, speakers were required to speak into a microphone at the front of the crowd.

Barb Welch, a ranchwife at the Brush Creek Ranch near Brownlee, was the first speaker during the public comment period. She said the cumulative impact statement was incomplete and thus invalid, and also shared some words from a letter from the American Bird Conservancy which is opposed to the powerline. Dan Welch was the third speaker. The couple have worked for decades to establish their ranch property, which has a unit south of Thedford, across which Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) proposes to place the powerline through rangeland that has a “high conservation value” as recognized by a study by Nebraska flora expert Kay Kottas, and which was financed by the ranch couple. Mr. Welch also indicated how NPPD has trespassed on his land.

Plastic markers indicating tower locations were left behind. NPPD has no legal authority to place these markers, according to research, so they are nothing but trash.

It was indicated by one speaker that NPPD has changed the route from the expressed “final” route indicated in documents, based upon a personal observation. Also, the utility company cannot build any powerline on property where they do not have a legally binding agreement on many segments of the proposed corridor. “How can an environmental review be done in regards to a hypothetical corridor,” was asked. Later in the meeting, biologist Harms indicated that following an email he had received, a request had been made about two weeks prior to NPPD asking for details denoting any route changes. There had been no response received as of the night of the meeting.

Voices heard at the meeting were strong and prominent. Names are not given here in complete respect to them. Those sorts of details will eventually be available in the public transcript of this meeting as well as those at Burwell and Sutherland, since a transcriber was present and kept a record.

The “sandhills are a national treasure ... very special and unique attention needs to be given” to continue these values, according to a rancher where the industrial powerline would bisect their range.

“There is no ecosystem similar to the sandhills, anywhere in this nation” said a Brownlee area, multi-generation rancher.

A neighbor with a heritage dating to the first years of ranching in the Cherry county sand hills said that “it would be a shame to put a transmission line through pristine hills.”

Each speaker received a round of applause after they had conveyed their comments. Continuing with comments heard:

“Visual and cultural impacts will be devastating to one of Nebraska’s most pristine areas” was spoken by a landowner that appreciates the several majestic Trumpeter Swan that spend the winter along the Dismal River and where Bald Eagle also appreciate the land that provides a seasonal haven.

Steve Moreland drove from Merriman to orate that the FWS “should just say no.” NPPD should “move along and quit wasting our time,” he said. Ranchman Moreland has part of a great legacy for a sandhills ranch family and his comments were indicative as he asked “Why do people want to ruin the hills for future generations.” His view that no incidental permit should be granted was completely agreed with by others, and the crowd as indicated by the applause of thanks for his spoken words.

A ranchwife from the east Thedford area does not accept that NPPD wants to ruin their ranch place for future generations, including her children.
Someone living nearby, spoke about how the proposed route for the transmission line has been altered at least two times. An additional impact would occur because of access roads that might be detrimental because they might provide means for trespassing.

In this same vicinity, another landowner expressed that on a portion of their ranch, about 1263 acres, NPPD proposes to build eight access roads which would include gates to provide the company access at times they would select.

This is “a total assault on their little place on the ranch east of Thedford,” she said. “NPPD can’t take away from what we have now.”
There was also a comment made about erosion associated with current power poles of the transmission line grid already present in the area and that regular power outages occur. “NPPD can’t take care of what they have now,” she said.

Especially significant was that after the moderator had gone through his numbers associated with people that indicated their intent to comment – and with additional time available – some people added to their three minute comment period. Others walked strongly to the microphone so they could share their individual views at this public forum.

The sandhills are a “different and special world that needs protection,” said a speaker representing more than a century of ranch legacy, not only in Thomas county but also in the great ranch county of Cherry county north of Hyannis. Details were given for nesting Bald Eagle in close proximity of the proposed powerline route.

A question was raised as why there has been no consideration of soil features. Details indicated convey that there is a great variance in soils so towers placed at various spots will result in barren land. At least two speakers indicated that character of the Dismal River sand hills should be a special concern.

Another speaker, that has personally taken the time to look at sites where there are powerline towers, has realized that the ground vegetation has not regrown during their multi-year observations.

A key item expressed was how the construction and placement of powerline towers might affect the local groundwater aquifer? This indicated concern especially pertains to southern Holt county where wet meadows and land wetlands obvious on the landscape indicate the presence of surface- and ground-water features.

During the meeting, questions were asked. Both Harms and Hines cordially provided answers, especially in regards to why the endangered American Burying Beetle and Whooping Crane are of particular concern.

An obvious theme by speakers was that the electronic documents were difficult to read. There had been problems with online access. Also obvious was the expense to print documents comprising about 1500 pages, with one attendee stating that it costs ten cents per page for black-and-white copies, and to get a color copy was 49 cents per page.

Concerns were expressed about how the construction of the R-Project could result in further degradation of the sandhills landscape as wind turbine facilities or solar-power development is expected to follow once a regional distribution powerline becomes available to transport energy to elsewhere.

Landowners in the area have already received letters from companies promoting industrial solar power facilities, or observed scoping activity along Highway 83.

The meeting on June 13th was at the Thedford fair grounds. Agency representative Hines gave a short presentation on key items regarding the project and the public review process before the comment period of the two-hour meeting. Several handouts were provided.

There were 68 people that signed in, including attendees from Thedford, Brownlee area, Brewster, Valentine, Kilgore and Merriman as well as an owner of local land from Red Oak, Iowa. Representatives from NPPD were present but did not give any remarks, and did not indicate their presence until a member of the crowd insisted that they identify themselves.

Comments on the project documents will be accepted by FWS until July 11, 2017. There have been from 30-40 requests to extend this comment period by at least 30 days, Hines said at the meeting. Several people that spoke also asked for an extension, as it is currently a busy time in ranch country.

A final decision on the incidental take permit for the burying beetle is tentatively scheduled for early November, 2017.