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Sandhills landowners vow to fight for rights

Dan Welch raises cattle and horses in the Sandhills.

He came to Lincoln Friday, along with a slew of other folks from the area, to tell the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee how he’s doing.

“Well, this summer we had a drought, the hay crop’s about half, we fought three range fires, cattle market’s depressed, taxes are going out the roof,” he told senators.

Add to that, the Sandhills are being invaded from the south by electric transmission lines and from the north by wind turbines, he said.

And that was the point of his testimony.

The committee met for more than four hours to hear testimony on a resolution (LR125) introduced by Natural Resources Committee Chairman Dan Hughes that studied public power in Nebraska, including the role of renewable energy in state economic development. And a number of people from entities such as the Southwest Power Pool testified.

But Hughes opened up the hearing after that for those who traveled hundreds of miles to tell their stories.

Welch said three years ago he got three letters from the Nebraska Public Power District saying it would give him 80 percent of his property value for his land and explaining eminent domain.

Now, he said, his land has been condemned, and he hoped senators would take action on a “recent problem that has dire consequences on the environment, tourism, property rights and the people of Nebraska.”

It affects at least 189 families, he said.

“We understand today that NPPD has no one to answer to. But today, they’re going to answer to the people in the Sandhills … because we’re tired. We’re tired,” he said.

NPPD is working on a $361 million transmission project, 345,000-volt line, called the R-Project, that would stretch from the southeast corner of Holt County west to Thedford, then south and west to the Gerald Gentleman Station. It would cross 423 properties requiring NPPD to get 644 easements from 185 owners.

NPPD has said the line would improve electric reliability for the region, relieve congested transmission systems and create opportunities for development of renewable energy generators like wind turbines.

It was conceived by the Southwest Power Pool, which oversees most of the electric grid and wholesale power market in 14 states.

NPPD used a comprehensive public involvement process during the siting of the transmission line, it said, with three rounds of public open house meetings and additional meetings for those interested. Eight public hearings were held in November 2014, and public input was encouraged throughout the entire process.

Stuart Scranton, who lives south of Thedford, has a 125-volt power line on his property that he said is not environmentally friendly. And he has concerns about the bigger lines NPPD wants to put into the area.

He constantly battles land erosion, he said, and this would make it worse.

He came to Lincoln to get state elected officials to open “dim eyes” and “deaf ears” to the landowners’ concerns, he said. There are shorter routes, he said.

“It would be devastating to the eco of the land and with all the wildlife,” Scranton said.

The burying beetles in the area put nutrients back in the land, he said, and could be disturbed by the project.

Vickie May, of northern Holt County, wanted to talk about the wind turbines on her property, the closest one a little more than a mile from her house, that have ruined the family’s life.

“I don’t know where to start,” she said, her voice shaking.

“From our south corner we look at 72 wind turbines. It is like a jet plane revving up to take off, but the plane never leaves. That sound is constantly with you.”

The family gets little sleep, and she has health problems she’s never in her life experienced, May said.

“It breaks my heart to think that everything we have worked our whole life for we may have to abandon or we may have to sell out,” she said.

Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon introduced a bill last session that calls for a two-year moratorium on wind energy projects and placement of turbines.

The 19,300-square-mile sand dune formation located in north-central Nebraska is one of the largest tracts of grassland remaining in the United States, Brewer said, and has 1 million acres of wetland. The Sandhills also recharges several extensive aquifers of the Ogallala Aquifer.

The sand dunes of the region provide habitat for more than 700 native plant species, 300 species of birds, 55 species of mammals, 75 of fish, and 27 of reptile and amphibians.

Eighty percent of the world’s population of sandhills cranes migrate through the area every year.

He told the committee at the end of the hearing he didn’t know how senators could listen for two hours to the landowners and not have a burning sadness about what is happening with the R-Project and wind energy “ripping apart the fabric of the Sandhills.”

Committee member Bruce Bostelman of Brainard said he had personally fought the battle three years and had lived a lot their stories.

“We need to be smart about it. If we’re going to use renewables (energy), fine. Let’s do them in the right place, at the right time, with input from the people who live there,” he said.