Area ranchers are concerned about the effect NPPD’s heavy equipment will have on the fragile dunes. Any harm, they say, can lead to a “blowout” — when the wind catches a disturbance in the dune and essentially rips it open, blowing the grass away and leaving only exposed sand.
“Our biggest concerns are that [the R-Project] is going to cause some substantive damage to the range land,” said Frank Utter, who manages a ranch in Blaine County. “The only way we can make a living is if we have growable, palatable forage for our cattle to eat.”
“It’s a real pristine environment the way it is, and this is going to change quite a bit,” said Bob Rice, who owns a ranch with his family in Loup County. “Every time we’ve ever moved anything on a sand hill, its never the same. And nobody will live long enough to see it go back to the same.”
The scars of failed farming attempts decades ago are still visible, locals say. Utter said even driving his pickup truck across the ranch he manages can leave an indentation for years.
The line is planned to run straight across the field where the Ballaghs' cattle graze, which Lynn Ballagh said is even hard to get a pickup truck through during wet years. If even he has trouble, he wonders how industrial equipment will manage without damaging the land.
“Where they want to go may be most convenient for them, but it may be the worse for us, as far as blowouts or going through the wet meadows,” Lynn said. “There’s years that we can’t even hay that ground during the season because the water there is too close. It makes ruts, it makes bogs.”
Kent said those concerns are really just unfounded fear, and that NPPD will be able to minimize impact.
“The Sandhills aren’t new to us,” Kent said, referencing the existing 200-plus miles of transmission lines there. But, he’ll concede, the existing lines are smaller than the R-Project. At the same time, he said, the new line would actually use fewer towers, and the big pieces can at least be brought in by helicopter.
But landowners are still skeptical, knowing that NPPD would still have to bring equipment and workers across their land and would continue to do so to maintain the line even after it is built. Much of the route, particularly in the east-west stretch through the Sandhills, is miles from a road. NPPD will have to bring its equipment in over the vast expanses of fragile, rolling hills — a tedious task even for longtime ranchers in pickup trucks.
NPPD has hired a “grasslands expert” from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to consult on the project, and Kent said the company will invest in grassland restoration, should it be needed. The line will ultimately fragment the Sandhills less than the few existing highways, he believes.
Dave Wedin, an ecologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who does research in the Sandhills, said that the ranchers’ concerns were valid, but careful planning on the part of NPPD should be able to mitigate permanent damage. “There clearly is a tipping point after which recovery is challenging, and everybody knows that up there,” Wedin said. “It doesn’t mean that an engineering firm can’t stabilize that dune, but they’re going to have to use pretty aggressive practices.”
“Within limits, the system is pretty resilient,” he added. “I can’t imagine the electrical utility company starting a lot of blowouts [if they are careful], but I could imagine them creating a bunch of patches of grasslands that are different than the surrounding grassland, that are maybe problematic for ranchers that cannot utilize it the same.”
Wedin, who is not the consultant brought on by NPPD, said that projects in the Sandhills also pose the risk of starting wildfires, which spread quickly in the region — a fear echoed by rancher Bob Rice.
“If [a fire] came down to the valley here, it would wipe us out,” Rice said, gesturing to his house surrounded by the grassland.
The controversial Keystone XL pipeline was originally planned to run through the Sandhills, but was rerouted out of concern for the region.
Kent said two years of research and planning went into the finalized route. But ranchers say that NPPD’s efforts can’t match their generations-deep knowledge of the land.
“I guess there’s so many things that you go through in this process, that I don’t think they’ve thought through,” Lynn Ballagh said. “And that scares you.”
After announcing the final route in January, NPPD began the process of obtaining “right of entry” from the 234 landowners whose land the line will cross, or whose land NPPD will need to access in order to get to the line at all.
Of those landowners, 140 have granted NPPD access. The Ballaghs and others believe many of them are likely out-of-town landowners. The 18 who have explicitly denied NPPD right of entry all live in the Sandhills, and those remaining have not responded or have yet to be contacted, Kent said. The landowners will be given a one-time payment as compensation for the project.
If right of entry is refused, “We’ll have to consider condemnation proceedings [and eminent domain] to secure right of entry,” Kent said. “Don’t have to do that, don’t plan to do that. It’s really in the best interest of the landowners to work with us at this point.”