Ryan Schuessler

Battle over grassland electrical lines looms in Nebraska

Sandhills ranchers push back against a plan to run more than 200 miles of lines through grasslands

GARFIELD COUNTY, Neb. — Devyn Ballagh never planned to do anything else but keep on ranching.

“When you own something, you take pride in it,” the 29-year-old Ballagh said. “Just knowing that you’re a fifth-generation rancher, and knowing you’re the fifth generation in your family to take care of this land, you feel a lot of responsibility for it.”

To be a Ballagh in the Nebraska Sandhills is to be tied to the land. Devyn’s family has lived and worked on the same property for 130 years, and they have no plans to leave anytime soon. But the land itself could change if one of Nebraska’s electric companies has its way — and that doesn’t sit well with the Ballaghs.

The Ballaghs are just one of many ranching families trying to push back against a plan to build more than 200 miles of electric transmission lines through the Nebraska Sandhills. Spanning nearly 25,000 square miles, the Sandhills cover more than one-quarter of the state and are one of the largest intact native grasslands in North America. The Nebraska Public Power District says the so-called “R-Project” is needed to support the region’s electrical grid. But ranchers like the Ballaghs are concerned about property values, their cattle, the endangered species in the region, and the potential for irreparable damage to the fragile dunes of the Sandhills.

Welcome to the Sandhills

A rainbow appears over the Sandhills, one of the largest unfragmented grasslands in North America.
Ryan Schuessler

Considered their own ecoregion, the Sandhills are the largest sand dune formation in the Western hemisphere — but it’s no desert. The dunes are stabilized by grass and the water table under much of the Sandhills is so close to the surface that the meadows in between the dunes give way to ponds, marshes and wetlands. Wildlife is abundant.

“It’s a special place,” Amy Ballagh, Devyn’s mother, said from the family’s ranch home. As she spoke, a flock of golden finches flew past the back window. A wild turkey skirted the backyard fence, looking for fallen birdseed.

When the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) came knocking, families like the Ballaghs were alarmed, to say the least.

“You can’t recreate large, unfragmented pieces of grasslands,” Devyn Ballagh said. “You wish they would recognize the Sandhills for what they are and not what they want it to be: a place where you go to put up a bunch of lines.”


In January 2015, the NPPD announced it had finalized a route for more than 200 miles of 345,000-volt transmission lines — the ones with massive metal towers — to be built in north-central Nebraska, right through the Sandhills.

NPPD is building the line at the request of the Southwest Power Pool, a group of 80 utilities across nine states, which NPPD joined in 2009. The Southwest Power Pool is paying for most of the project, which NPPD Vice President Tom Kent said would improve the reliability and capacity of the entire regional electrical grid.

The ranchers will still be able to use the land as they always have, Kent told Al Jazeera, even though the company will have to acquire a 200-foot-wide stretch of land along the entire route. In a series of public meetings over the past year, Sandhills ranchers and NPPD representatives have become embroiled in a near-constant back-and-forth exchange of points and counter points.

“The fragmentation is what makes you feel the most violated,” Devyn Ballagh said. “It makes you vulnerable when it splits your ranch.”

A "blown-out" dune in the Sandhills, near the Ballagh family ranch.
Ryan Schuessler

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.”

The beetle that roared?

Nebraska State Highway 91, headed west through the Sandhills towards the village of Brewster.
Ryan Schuessler

Driving through their land, Lynn and Devyn Ballagh pointed out the “booming grounds” of the greater prairie chicken, one of the places where the birds gather each year to mate.

“If you come out here in the morning, you just hear so many different birds,” Lynn said. Ranchers have also expressed concern about the impact the R-Project could have on area wildlife.

The Sandhills are home to more than 700 species of plants, including several that are endangered, and more than 300 species of animals. The region is along the migration path of dozens of bird species, including the endangered whooping crane. Tens-of-thousands of Sandhill cranes, with a migration route starting throughout Siberia and North America that bottlenecks in Nebraska, pass through the Sandhills each year.

Others point out that the R-Project line could give eagles and hawks an unnatural perch, further exposing one of the country’s only stable populations of greater prairie chickens to predators.

“Huge unfragmented grasslands provide an invaluable habitat for endangered species, and even-non endangered species, like migratory birds, found nowhere else,” said Bob Harms, a biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It’s really a treasure here in Nebraska.”

But out of all the species, there may only be one that has a fighting chance of standing in the way of the project: the tiny American burying beetle, a federally protected endangered species found in the Sandhills.

Because of the beetle’s presence, NPPD will have to apply for a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to “take” — meaning, kill — a certain number of beetles during the transmission line’s construction. NPPD is currently in the process of applying for that permit while the Fish and Wildlife Service researches the impact the project would have on the environment.

“During the course of these plannings, [NPPD] determined they could not complete the project and that it could not be done without a permit to ‘take’ the endangered American burying beetle,” Harms said. “If they don’t get a permit, then they cannot do the project.”

NPPD’s Tom Kent told Al Jazeera that the Fish and Wildlife Service legally will have to grant the permit, but Harms said that is not true. The answer to that question lies somewhere in between, according to Austin-based attorney Alan Glen, an expert on the Endangered Species Act, among other federal environmental laws.

Glen said the Endangered Species Act is written in such a way that the Fish and Wildlife Service cannot deny NPPD the permit so long as the company meets the conservation criteria laid out by the law.

“In my experience with these kinds of permits — and I’ve got a lot [of experience] — I’ve not had one rejected,” Glen said. “Sometimes it takes a long time, but I’ve not had one rejected. And it’s a very, very rare circumstance where they actually reject a permit.”

Many of the fiercely self-sufficient Sandhills ranchers have traditionally fallen in the camp that opposes when development or private enterprises are halted by the government because of the presence of endangered species. They have now found themselves hoping that the government’s efforts to preserve the American burying beetle might be able to stop the R-Project.

Frank Utter on the ranch he manages in Blaine County, Nebraska.
Ryan Schuessler

“They should be giving a lot of consideration when they want to put a project through a place like that,” Utter said. “I just think it’s going to be an environmental mess.”

“Anybody that’s environmentally conscious should take an interest in this,” said Cathy Rice, Bob Rice’s wife. “It’s hard for us to see how anyone wouldn’t have a concern about this. Anyone who is environmentally conscious at all.”

Amy Ballagh added, “I think [NPPD] narrowed it down to the most fragile place they could go.”

Even though the Sandhills are largely private land, many of the ranchers pride themselves on the fact that they collectively have cared for the Sandhills’ environment for generations. Healthy grasslands means more land for their cattle to graze. To them, the abundance of wildlife and the vast expanses of untouched grassland are signs that they are doing their jobs well. The R-Project, they say, jeopardizes that.

An uncertain future

“We’re now looking at [alternative routes], which we weren’t before,” Harms said of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s research into the environmental impact of the R-Project. “If we can find an alternative or set of alternatives that would meet NPPD’s purpose for the project and have less of an impact on the American burying beetle, then yes we would advocate for them.”

Earlier this year, Harms sent Kent an email supporting the consideration of an alternative route drawn by a group of ranchers that included the Ballaghs. Many of the ranchers aren’t opposed to the project — just the current route, which they see as unnecessarily destructive.

The line will also cross unique historical sites, including ruts left over from the Oregon and Mormon trails, as well as the remnants of the first sod schoolhouse in Garfield County.

NPPD’s planned route begins south of Sutherland, on the southern edge of the Sandhills, before heading north to an electric substation in the town of Thedford, in the heart of the region. The line would then cut east, running across the eastern half of the Sandhills before joining an existing transmission line near the town of Clearwater.

The proposed alternative is closer to road systems, Amy Ballagh said, and the soil is more stable and used as farmland. NPPD could build the line in the winter when the fields are empty, allowing farmers to smooth out their fields again before spring planting. The route bypasses the connection at Thedford, instead skirting the southern edge of the Sandhills in a diagonal line connecting Sutherland to Clearwater.

“There’s such a big area of Nebraska that already has all the infrastructure and the soils,” Devyn Ballagh said. “It just doesn’t make sense when you have areas that are easier to do it than to force your way into an area where it’s not wanted.”

Kent said that the Ballaghs' proposed route is not viable because it doesn’t meet the needs of the project. When asked what explicit need the alternative route leaves out, Kent identified the connection at Thedford.

One of the flattest parts of the Sandhills in Blaine County.
Ryan Schuessler

Kent said it is the Southwest Power Pool that requires the Sutherland-Thedford-Clearwater connection. The Ballaghs' route skips Thedford, and therefore cannot be considered as an alternative.

“This project would be done whether we were doing it or not,” Kent said, explaining that the Southwest Power Pool would have found another organization to build the line if NPPD had declined to. “It’s better that we’re working with landowners in Nebraska rather than some other out-of-state entity coming in and doing it.”

“The requirement to connect the line at the Thedford substation is due to reliability needs that were identified in a 2014 study by SPP,” Southwest Power Pool spokesperson David Avery said in a statement emailed to Al Jazeera. “SPP’s role is to identify transmission needs and direct construction of projects that meet those needs under [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission]-approved planning processes. The utility [such as NPPD] is responsible for identifying line routes between the substation terminal points identified by SPP.”

Kent said that the R-Project is being built in part to allow for the future development of renewable energy in the Sandhills, particularly wind energy.

“Nebraska is a place with a lot of wind potential, but there is no transmission there,” Kent said. Transmission such as the R-Project allow for wind-generated electricity to enter into the grid that supplies homes and businesses with power. Northwestern Nebraska has been called the “Saudi Arabia of wind” in some circles, but the region lacks the infrastructure to move wind-generated energy around and out of the state.

It turns out the R-Project may just be the beginning of what’s in store for the Sandhills. The Nebraska Transmission Advocacy Group, an organization “created to proactively communicate Nebraska’s unified message regarding long range transmission to the Southwest Power Pool,” is currently discussing the “T-plan,” another transmission line. The group’s 18 members are mostly Nebraska utility companies, including NPPD, along with several wind energy firms.

Part of the R-Project requires the expansion of the electric substation at Thedford. According to a map provided by the group, the T-plan would start at Thedford, before heading west — even deeper into the Sandhills. Combined, the R-Project and T-plan would horizontally run through almost the entire length of the Sandhills.  

The idea of transmission lines and wind turbines in the Sandhills is troubling to many of the region’s ranchers who increasingly believe the Sandhills are being sacrificed for the benefit of outsiders with little consideration of those who live there.

“One of the things that drew us to this part of the country was that it’s still open and unspoiled. There’s value in that.” Frank Utter said. “Everybody that lives here are entitled to the same considerations as those that live in a populated area. They made their choice to live there, and we made our choice to live here. People just assume that there’s not a lot of people here, so it doesn’t matter.”

“Now’s the time to say, ‘This is it,’” Amy Ballagh said. “We need to save the Sandhills. Nebraska needs to decide what it wants to do with the Sandhills.”

“You can’t recreate large, unfragmented pieces of grasslands,” said Devyn Ballagh, who is celebrating his first wedding anniversary this summer and hopes to raise his own children on the family ranch. “How many spots like the Sandhills will we have left for the next generation to inhabit?”

He added: “Or are they going to be left with nothing?”

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