A little black and orange beetle may be the biggest obstacle to a 225-mile-long proposed power line through Nebraska’s Sandhills. But a proposal to protect the beetle while allowing the line to be built has stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposition.
Early morning, in a ditch outside a grassy field on the edge of the Sandhills, Bob Harms, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, takes a loosely-propped lid off a plastic bucket.
“What do we have?” he asks a reporter, laughing in anticipation.
Harms opens the bucket to reveal a dead white rat.
“This rat here has been rotting for five days. And so those beetles are attracted to rotting things – carrion,” he says.
Harms lifts the rat off the six inches or so of soil underneath, then runs his hands through that to find his prize.
“There’s one, two, three, four,” he announces, as he plops American burying beetles into a separate bucket.
The beetles are orange and black, and about an inch long. They are an endangered species, and while Harms acknowledges some people ask, ‘So what?’ he says they’re important to the environment, and the people who live in it.
“These insects are recyclers. They find dead creatures out in the environment. And they bury them and put that organic (material) back into the soil,” he explained. “If you’re out here trying to make a living on this sand that’s inorganic and there’s something that’ll put organic material in the soil, and make that grass stand a little better, well that’s good.”
At the Thomas County Fairgrounds in Thedford, people who make their living off that sandy soil gathered last week to talk about those beetles, and other things.
Among them was Carol Neiman Lewis. Lewis contrasted what she said people in the Sandhills care about, to what she said is the interest of the Nebraska Public Power District, which wants to build the power line.
“Quite frankly, it’s medicinal to come out here with the wonderful, kind folk that care about their place. They care about their neighbors. They care about the burying beetles. They care about bats. They care about deer. NPPD? Money” she said.
Not surprisingly, NPPD sees it differently. Spokesman Mark Becker said the line has three purposes.
“One is to provide reliability for the electric transmission system in Nebraska. The second part it’s for the relief of congestion on the transmission system. And a third part, it does open it up for the potential for renewable energy to be put onto those lines,” Becker said.
“Although NPPD is not planning to do anything about that now…there is a tremendous amount of interest in the state of Nebraska for additional wind energy that can be sold to other states and other communities across the country,” he added.
As part of its plan, NPPD also proposes buying 500 acres in the area that would be set aside to preserve beetle habitat.
At the meeting in Thedford, people were concerned about effects on the proposed power line on the environment – not only for beetles, but for bald eagles, whooping cranes and people. They talked about heavy construction equipment tearing up the fragile landscape. And they worried about power lines and wind farms marring the unspoiled view of the Sandhills.
Twyla Witt of Thedford said building the line would affect residents directly, and through the loss of tourists.
“We need those tourists,” Witt said, whereas the power line would “encourage oodles and oodles and oodles of wind turbines, because we’ve seen it happen everywhere else.
“I know there’s people right in this community that think ‘Oh, this is just a transmission line.’ That’s not true. The minute the transmission line comes we’re going to have wind turbine farms scattered all along it. And you bet your bottom dollar they’re going to be crying then,” she said, referring to people who depend on tourism.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s draft environmental impact statement, issued last month, considers that. But its focus is on endangered species like the American burying beetle. Officials considered three alternatives – the “no action alternative” assumes the line would not be built. Alternative A is to build it using a combination of single pole towers and steel lattice towers, which are lighter weight and less disruptive to build. And Alternative B uses all single pole towers.
In Thedford, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Eliza Hines explained the tentative decision.
“From our analysis, we picked Alternative A, which is a combination of lattice towers and monopoles; the combination which results in the least amount of ground disturbance, and thus the least amount of impact to the American burying beetle,” Hines said.
Actually, the draft environmental impact statement acknowledges the beetles would not be impacted at all if the line is not built. But it adds that would mean the goals of the R-project – relieving congestion, enhancing reliability, and providing opportunities for renewable power, would not be met, either.
Currently, the public comment period on the draft environmental impact statement is scheduled to run through July 11. At the meeting in Thedford, several people requested an extension for more time to consider the more than 850-page document.
Steve Moreland of Merriman told Fish and Wildlife officials an extension shouldn’t be necessary.
“This whole deal almost kind of rests on your shoulders. And I’m thinking we don’t need an extension. We just need you to say no – right now,” Moreland said, to cheers.
That didn’t happen. But officials say they will consider an extension. Otherwise, they say they anticipate issuing a final environmental impact statement, and making a final decision on the future of the project later this year.
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