In Burwell, Neb., Mel Lowery slumps over the wheel of his red Ford F-250, flannel sleeves crossed and buttoned to the wrist, hands wrinkled and rough. The engine hums, a full-throated, diesel purr. He peers out beneath the brim of his hat, surveying his land through a bug-smeared windshield: the bluestem and the grama, the chop on the pond, a single rusty windmill spinning in the distance. He points out every haunt and hollow, all the tragedies in between.
“This is what we call Dave’s crossing,” he says, approaching a shallow ravine. “There was a young fella working here a few years ago. He got out to see how bad they got stuck, keeled over and died. Twenty-one years old. Must have had an aneurysm.”
Out here, where grassy dunes stipple the prairie like ski moguls as far as the eye can see, the story is in the sand and those who mend it. Today, despite numerous pleas from a ranching community that has been safeguarding these hills for nearly a century and a half, Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD)—the state’s largest electric utility—is moving forward with plans to construct a high-voltage transmission line through the heart of the Nebraska Sandhills. NPPD claims the transmission line is a public necessity, intended to improve reliability of the entire regional power system—including the Sandhills region. Nevertheless, lifelong Sandhillers like Lowery and others fear the consequences on the land of a project this big in a region so sensitive to change, and question whether NPPD has the know-how to responsibly install it.
Ignoring the truck, the cattle graze on. From opposite directions, grandsons Logan and Corey Seamann approach the herd on horseback, gradually tightening the circle. Mel trawls behind, spitting stories like sunflower seeds, damning gopher holes, occasionally punching the horn to redirect a stray. “These old girls, they wanna go that way,” he tells me, lifting an index finger from the wheel. “That’s where they winter down south there … getting pretty smart, like a built-in clock.”
Mel hops out of the truck without shutting the door, unlatches the gate and throws it aside. A few minutes later a huffing mass of black angus rises over the hill, roughly 100 head. Shoulder-to-shoulder they funnel through the opening, followed by the brothers and their dogs, Rocky and Bandy, panting and sprinting between them. It is a scene Mel has watched play out thousands of times during his life on the family ranch, a scene he narrates with the same tranquil air as he does the ’80s Farm Crisis or the death of a 21-year-old Sandhiller. There is a frankness to life out here. Little time for mourning or metaphors. And until recently, little time for protesting. He nods toward the windmill.
“Just south about a quarter mile, [it] will go right over the top,” he says. “Hard to visualize what a great big, 80-foot-high line going right through here would do.” But he and his grandsons—along with their neighbors and concerned landowners up and down the proposed route—can hazard a few guesses: blowouts—areas where the lack of vegetation gives way to bare, sandy craters—around the support towers, uprooted shelterbelts, detriments to waterfowl and other wild game, unannounced visitors on private property, a visual blight on one of the last great expanses of open grassland. The list goes on.
“We only got one chunk of ground,” Logan later tells me, sitting at his grandfather’s dinner table in full get-up. “You might as well take care of it.”
In February 2012, a federally approved transmission organization called the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) conducted a study to ensure the power system could reliably handle customer demand in its nine-state region over the next decade. The SPP flagged two areas of concern in Nebraska: one further east, and one in the sparsely populated Sandhills of north-central Nebraska, a region novelist Jim Harrison has called “without a doubt the most mysterious landscape in the United States.” Stabilized by an array of prairie grasses, the Sandhills are the largest sand dune formation in the Western Hemisphere, more than 19,000 square miles of mostly unbroken ranchland rolling atop the Ogallala Aquifer.
In response to the study, NPPD, a not-for-profit corporation and a member of the SPP since 2008, unveiled plans for the “R-Project,” a 225-mile, 345,000-volt transmission line built for an estimated $361.5 million. Expected to last a minimum of 50 years, the line would stretch 100 miles north from a coal-fired station in Sutherland—the largest generating plant in the state—to a newly sited substation near Thedford. It would then pivot 90 degrees and run east 125 miles to another new substation near Clearwater, where it would connect to a pre-existing 345,000-volt line. The project would cross mostly private ranchland, and would require support towers every quarter-mile along the route. To install and maintain the facilities, NPPD would offer easement contracts worth 80 percent of the appraised land value for a 200-foot swath beneath the line. Aside from “limited restrictions,” the landowners would still be free to farm or graze underneath.
“The power that will flow on this line can come from any of NPPD’s generation sources,” writes NPPD. “The amount, and what source it comes from, depends on the specific location of the demand for electricity in the entire SPP and NPPD transmission system. This project is being done for the benefit of the Nebraska and regional power system.”
According to NPPD Vice President and COO, Tom Kent, adding a separate transmission corridor between eastern and western Nebraska would improve the reliability of NPPD’s entire grid, allowing “some separation from common weather events, those kinds of things.” In the last few years, especially during the drought of 2012, the underlying 115,000-volt system at Thedford hasn’t always kept up with demand. Among other factors, the ag industry’s transition from oil to electric-powered irrigation pivots has crowded the grid. Think of it like a traffic jam, he says. If too much energy flows in the same direction, “that causes you to reroute traffic, or in our case, to not use the most economic generation resource.” He says reducing congestion helps to ensure the lowest price for its customers.
Increasing capacity for future renewable energy projects in the state is perhaps the impetus most often cited for construction of the new line. It’s also the most complicated. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Nebraska is the windiest state in the country. And yet, in terms of wind energy generation, the state—dubbed the “Saudi Arabia of Wind” by former governor Mike Johanns—doesn’t even crack the top-10 list, despite the 14 Nebraskan wind farms that already exist. “One of the barriers to wind development is transmission access,” Kent says. “So north-central Nebraska has very good wind resources and not a lot of existing transmission.” Though Kent says there are a number of companies currently evaluating new wind energy projects in Nebraska, he isn’t aware of any currently waiting on the R-Project.
For some, including Bold Nebraska, the activist group nationally recognized for its role combating the Keystone XL pipeline, NPPD’s sudden focus on renewable energy raises a red flag. In general, Bold Nebraska supports construction of transmission lines for clean energy, says founder Jane Kleeb. But NPPD has hardly stood as a vanguard for the green energy movement.
“[W]e have no proof that’s what the R-Project is for since the CEO [of NPPD] talks about how we have too much fossil fuel energy already, and won’t build any clean energy for the next 20 years. This line starts at a coal plant and is mostly paid for by the out-of-state power companies that are in a new regional power pool. So we don’t see this line being built by Nebraska or for Nebraska.”
According to Kent, NPPD began the routing process “with the ultimate goal of a line route that minimizes impact and meets the needs of the project,” one of which was to connect with the smaller line in Thedford. After two years evaluating a host of factors ranging from proximity to occupied homes to whooping crane habitat to the number of wellheads in the right of way, NPPD narrowed the study area to a preferred route. In the meantime, it hosted 26 open houses, ostensibly to gather input from concerned citizens and landowners within the corridor.
Despite mounting opposition to the R-Project from ranchers like Mel Lowery and his grandsons, the Nebraska Power Review Board unanimously approved NPPD’s application in October 2014, thus declaring the project a public necessity. And though alternative routes were submitted, including one by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “we determined they didn’t give us something that was better than what we’ve already figured out,” Kent says. In January 2015, NPPD finalized the route.
One fact the utility is not quick to offer is the trump card in its back pocket. Because NPPD is a political subdivision, it has the right to declare eminent domain should landowners refuse to sign their terms. It is the unfortunate backdrop to all of the opponent’s other complaints, a shadow looming at the end of the road, a process they hope to avoid but one they can’t ignore. As one might imagine, these ranchers aren’t keen on what they see as an increasingly liberal use of the process.
“Seems like a person has less rights than they used to,” Lowery says. “Government is just like a cancer: you can fight it all you want, but eventually it’s gonna get you.”
Not long before the first open houses, landowners along the study area received letters from NPPD showing two potential routes. One of those landowners was Lowery’s neighbor, Amy Ballagh, whose family has ranched in the Sandhills north of Burwell for 135 years. Both routes crossed her land, one through a wet hay meadow to the south, the other through a shelterbelt where they calve in the spring, just a mile north of her home.
“We just thought ‘Wait a minute. There’s not any place else in the whole state of Nebraska that’s more realistic?”
She studied the plans, and what at first seemed like a personal threat to the family ranch soon spilled over. She called her friends, her neighbors. Everyone had concerns: about their land, their property rights, their way of life out here where cattle outnumber people at least five to one—where an empty tank can leave you stranded more than a dozen miles from the nearest filling station. Who could access their land, they asked, and how often? And did they know anything about the soil, how fine it is, how loose? Or the fickle mixed grasses holding it all in place? Have they seen the tractor ruts that never disappeared? The blowouts triggered by a poorly placed salt feeder, or a few cattle left to graze for a day too long? Did they watch the trumpeter swans lift off the lake? The whooping cranes? The ducks? Did they feel the land like they did, most of them third- or fourth- or even fifth-generation Sandhillers?
They gathered for the first time in Burwell, more than 35 landowners who—if not outright opposed to the R-Project—were hesitant to start signing any contracts. Thirty-five landowners might not sound like much, Ballagh says, “but these landowners are different than in farming communities where you just own a quarter or something.” They own thousands of acres, she says, some of the largest ranches in the state. They all kept talking, by phone and email and especially on a Facebook page they dubbed “Save the Sandhills,” a name that has since come to brand the R-Project’s opposition. They hired an attorney on retainer, the same man representing the landowners fighting the Keystone XL pipeline, a man who knows a thing or two about eminent domain, should it all come to that. They hope it won’t.
“There will be some that will probably never agree 100 percent on the impact to the Sandhills as a whole,” Kent says. “One thing that is really important to understand … is there’s a proven need to do this. NPPD was given this project as the incumbent utility. If we had said no, there would be a different utility, most likely from out of state, doing the project. Quite frankly, I feel a lot better about Nebraskans working with Nebraskans.”
As of this November, 74 percent of landowners have signed a right-of-way agreement, allowing NPPD to survey their land. But Save the Sandhills is quick to note the remaining quarter owns roughly 40 percent of the route, and some who signed the agreement won’t necessarily sign the easement. In the meantime, the group is doing what it can to raise awareness for their plight, mainly online. Every now and then a reporter will come around, but many are dismayed that—unlike the KXL—the R-Project has so far received little attention from advocacy groups like Bold Nebraska and others.
“If we had more resources,” Kleeb says, “we would add another staff person just for the R-Line.”
Before we head back to the house, Logan wants me to see something. “Take him to the blowout,” he tells Mel, leaning forward in his saddle, “then we’ll circle back.” The pickup moans and jerks as we climb the Sandhills, snaking our way back and forth to avoid high centering. “Not sure how best to get up here,” Mel says, though he doesn’t slow down much, plowing over one yucca after the next. Eventually, we complete our ascent, spooking an owl from its perch. Just below is a large crater filled with sand, as if some massive creature took a hungry bite out of the earth. In the bottom of the bowl, the sand is uninterrupted, smooth as a beach. But around the brim, a tiny battle is being waged, thin stalks of grass—like peach fuzz from a distance—fighting against the winds.
“Not sure how long it’s been here, probably years and years and years,” Mel says, for as long as he can remember. “Because see, it’s starting to heal over at the top, but the wind just keeps it swirling around.”
More than stripping out shelterbelts, or the possible interruptions to migratory waterfowl, or the stain of development on an otherwise undeveloped landscape—all of which emerge in conversation given enough time—ranchers who have positioned themselves against the R-Project talk blowouts. Like a small rip your jeans, once they start, they just keep growing. Of course, in a region once considered a desert, blowouts can and do occur naturally, especially after heavy rains or wildfires. In fact, the uniform grass cover one finds in the Sandhills today is due largely to grazing-management techniques adopted by ranchers over the last half century.
“This [management] has resulted in a productive and stable grassland ecosystem in a higher ecological state,” says Jerry Volesky, a range and forage specialist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “Prior to settlement, uncontrolled grazing (bison, wildlife, some domestic livestock), limited watering points, and uncontrolled fires had the Sandhills in much poorer range condition than they are today.”
All of which is to say that in the 21st century, blowouts not only cut into production, but reflect poorly on the ownership. “Every Sandhiller hates a blowout,” Mel says. “Some you can help and some you can’t. But when you set out too long, you create erosion.”
NPPD claims this isn’t their first rodeo. It already has more than 200 miles of transmission line in the Sandhills—though none of it is this high voltage, Ballagh adds, nor the infrastructure so intrusive—and they’ll work with landowners and restoration experts to help prevent these types of blowouts. To those who oppose the line, it’s all talk. Each one of them has generations’ worth of anecdotal evidence to contradict NPPD’s plans for maintenance and restoration.
Logan and Corey, too. They steer their Quarter Horses to the edge of the crater. From up here, you can see for miles, the hills stark and orange under overcast skies. It’s hard to know what they’re thinking, but you can bet they’re on the same page. Later, they’ll tell me they’ve never once thought about leaving the ranch, “too stupid to do anything else.” They’ll tell me there’s nothing better than saddling up and riding out “in this wide open country.” They’ll say working the hay machinery is the worst part of the job, because they’re “turnin’ wrenches instead of ridin’ horses.” They’ll say, only partly exaggerating, “Gonna be pretty much like startin’ another grand canyon if they go through here.” They’ll say, “maybe if they’d listen to all these guys who have been out here all their lives, instead of these guys who have been readin’ a damn book…”
Opposition to eminent domain is nearly universal here, but the rest is much less black and white than one might expect. Some dismiss the renewable energy impetus altogether, not because they don’t believe in climate change, but because they’re skeptical of the technology and its current efficiency. Some oppose the R-Project because they aren’t convinced they’ll personally benefit from the new line. And yet others are ideologically motivated, peeved that NPPD has the right to condemn their property, but devastated to see some of the country’s last remaining undeveloped geographies bisected by Americans’ myopic need for more. It can be difficult, talking with landowners affected by the R-Project, to discern where their concerns truly lie. How much is in regards to the land, and how much is simply a defense of their property rights?
“I waver back and forth. I think eminent domain is being loosely thrown out there right now without serious concern for landowner rights. That is a big issue,” Ballagh says. “But our business, our livelihood as ranchers, depends on the health of our environment. They’re both valid arguments.”
Before I leave the Lowery Ranch, Mel brews a pot of coffee and the four of us sit around his living room table. Driving around the Sandhills earlier in the day, it occurred to me that, while it’s hard to argue with the sheer openness here, it isn’t virgin territory. Telephone poles often flank even the back roads, and you don’t have to look far before you hit a barbed-wire fence. They’re easy to overlook, having crept into our portraits of the empty countryside. I point this out Logan.
“How much development is too much development?” I ask. “Why all that, and not this?”
“Well, you got a point,” he says. He stares at the table. The room goes silent, save for the barely audible tick-tock of a clock I can’t find. I let him sit with it.
“I don’t know,” he finally says. “But them things are pretty damn big.”