ROSE – The first thing you notice on Dave Hutchinson’s Sandhills ranch on a July day are the dragonflies – so many dragonflies.
They are dodging his Ranger side-by-side on this trip over the grassland, flying alongside, darting in front of it like escorts. The Hutchinson Organic Ranch is the place to be, it seems, because of the lack of chemicals and pollutants that allow the Hutchinsons’ bison, cattle, goats and other animals raised here to thrive.
“It’s a big, nice, pure ecosystem,” said Hutchinson. “That’s why they flourish so much.”
It’s an environment of soil, air, water, grass, even vistas, that Dave and Sue Hutchinson want to remain uncontaminated in all ways possible.
They have been on this land for decades, moving from Lincoln in their 20s, ripening into Sandhills people who pay attention to what the land needs and doesn’t need to sustain the animals. To protect the artesian water that bubbles from 17 springs, the diverse species of birds and bees and flying insects.
Many others in the Sandhills feel that need to safeguard this place. But more often now they see the intrusion of big business, Hutchinson says, in the form of wind farms and power lines and pipelines.
In his mind, and the mind of many of his neighbors, there is a growing momentum to dig up the treasure that is the Nebraska Sandhills, and to transform it into someone else’s idea of progress.
The Sandhills covers close to 20,000 square miles in north-central Nebraska, sometimes thought of as the middle of nowhere, but by some as the best-kept Nebraska secret. With spring-fed rivers, scenic highways and country roads, unobstructed night skies, diverse wildlife, migrating birds, forestland, high vista sunsets.
And small lakes rising from the Ogallala Aquifer, so blue they appear enchanted.
The area holds the largest grass-covered sand dune formations in the western hemisphere, and one of the largest grass-stabilized set of sand dunes in the world. Rancher Bob Bernt would tell you they’re the only ones.
“But at one time they were not,” said Bernt. “And it won’t take long to go back to that.”
They can be easily damaged by heavy equipment, wind turbines, high-voltage power lines that reach hundreds of feet into the air, the ranchers said.
Down the highway from Bernt’s land is a 110-kilovolt power line constructed three years ago. A mile south from U.S. 281, construction equipment laid down tire tracks when putting in a pole for that line, he said. Today, two pickup trucks stacked on top of each other would fit in the “blowout” erosion holes caused by the equipment, he said.
“That’s no longer stabilized,” the rancher said.
And that’s the problem landowners foresee as the Nebraska Public Power District pushes forward on construction of the R-Project, a 345-kilovolt, 225-mile transmission line that will bisect the Sandhills. It will run from NPPD’s Gerald Gentleman Station near Sutherland north to an existing substation east of Thedford. The new line will then proceed east and connect to a substation to be sited in Holt County.
Hutchinson, whose land will not be crossed by the power line, said an alternate southern route for the R-Project was proposed that is outside of the Sandhills, less invasive, follows corridors and roads and was supported at one time by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Bernt supported that southern route, too, even though it would run closer to his land, he said.
NPPD in a 2015 news release announcing the Sandhills route said considerations included proximity to homes, towns and villages; impact on farms and ranches; and land use, environment and construction considerations.
Bernt is at the center of the fight because he and his wife of 39 years, Christine, and their 12 kids, have roots burrowed deep in this land. It’s been in his family 160 years. He understands its fragility, knows it’s not replaceable.
On their land at the foot of the Sandhills, the spring-fed, 50-mile Cedar River breaks between the sandy hills on the north and clay ground south of it.
Hutchinson and Bernt often team up on their mission to protect the Sandhills from what they describe as businesses that care more about the money to be made than the land. Their focus these days is on the power line and wind energy projects.
The hills and its people are unique, Bernt said. The farthest his children live is about 30 miles from this ranch.
Sandhillers, as they call themselves, are hardwired for tradition. They don’t care much that they don’t have high-speed internet. They are dedicated to this way of life and protecting it for future generations.
And they have a long list of allies in their cause.
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Mel Coffman looks out over the 7J Cattle Co. ranch she and her husband, Mic, manage 6 miles northwest of Halsey and points to where the R-Project power line will crest the hill.
“Them towers, they’re going to have to be pretty darn tall to come off the hill and not sag the ground,” she says.
On a hot day in July, she has been checking on the 900 or so Angus cattle, making sure they have water, salt, minerals. Seeing to it the wells are pumping. That the bulls are behaving.
“It’s kind of a nonstop deal,” she said.
She and Mic never had the opportunity or the funds to have their own ranch. Ground costs a lot of money.
Instead they love this ranch, their home for 31 years. John and Grant Dean of Iowa own it – but the Coffmans treat it like it’s theirs.
The owners have signed an easement with NPPD, and so the R-line will come 3½ miles through the heart of the 7J.
Mel Coffman was born in the Sandhills, raised there. So was Mic. And they raised three kids and buried one of them, their son Seth, in these hills.
He was killed in a car wreck a week after he graduated from high school. The day before he died, the mother and son had been together, riding the whole day on horseback, moving cattle.
“So the Sandhills are just so precious to me. I feel that as ranchers, our job is to protect and take care of our environment for our livelihood. If we don’t take care of our land, we’re out of business,” she said.
She has so many concerns about the big sandy hills the line will traverse. Heavy equipment would lumber through grazing land, making fractures that would take a long time to heal.
And if they put screws in the ground to anchor the towers, as NPPD has told her, she worries about the aquifer.
She doesn’t trust that NPPD workers know much, if anything, about the hills. And board members voting on these issues don’t understand how close the line would be to houses and the effect on people and animals who live on the ranches, she said.
The power district has said it is committed to operating in an environmentally responsible manner and will practice good stewardship of the land.
Public power was built initially on good intentions, Coffman said, but now the people running it aren’t listening to what people who know the land are trying to tell them. They thought the ranchers would not question NPPD representatives when they said things like they would “fluff” up the ground when they’ve completed the job.
“These hills are alive,” she said. “If you open up the ground, the sand moves. It just moves. This is not farm ground. These are the Sandhills. … What are the hills going to look like when they get done?”
NPPD spokesman Mark Becker said he knows people are concerned about damage to the land.
“We fully understand. We’ve actually hired onto our staff an individual who has experience after construction of power lines to work with the landowners on proper restoration,” he said. “It won’t happen overnight. It will take some time.”
These disputes over wind farms and power lines have split families, longtime neighbors and friends. Mel Coffman’s brother Kevin, who lives southeast of Valentine, is a member of Cherry County Wind, an alliance of 70 families representing nearly 450,000 acres. He has leased ground to a wind farm on a long-term contract, she said.
But it’s best that they don’t talk about it.
Amy Ballagh ranches 5 miles north of Burwell, with 900-1,200 cattle near the Garfield-Holt county line. Her family has been there 135 years.
The transmission line will run less than a mile from their house, where there is water and the ranch’s best meadow. And it will cross over the first sod schoolhouse in the area.
“We will not give them a voluntary signature. We are so convinced that it’s not the right place for a transmission line,” Ballagh said.
They will have to take it by condemnation, she said.
Ballagh said the 93 miles the R-Project will follow through the Sandhills includes the sub-irrigated hay meadows around Chambers, renowned for their production of prime prairie hay. Of exceeding concern are the early homesteads of Nebraskans, where extended families still live on the original claims, and are now being threatened by eminent domain, she said.
“I can’t decide what I think is my biggest frustration,” Ballagh said, “whether it’s just that I’m so tired of being lied to, or whether I’m tired of feeling like my property rights are being just totally ignored.”
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Dave Hamilton ranches north of Thedford, a fourth-generation landowner whose family has been in the Sandhills 120 years.
But he has a different story to tell about wind farms and their investment in the Sandhills. And he is not so concerned about the power line as other ranchers.
Hamilton is among the Cherry County Wind investors.
The majority in the group are cattle ranchers, he says, who own anywhere from 100 acres to in excess of 50,000 acres. Only a small percentage will actually host a turbine, Hamilton said. But the others will also receive payments.
He believes the Bluestem Sandhills wind farm developer when it says turbines will not be placed on the softest, most environmentally sensitive areas.
The group sees the Bluestem project as an economic engine to diversify landowners’ revenue at a time when it is needed. Bluestem is a Nebraska-based developer who understands the special considerations of the Sandhills region, Hamilton said.
This project near Kilgore, he said, will add valuation to Cherry County tax rolls and will generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in local property taxes every year, with about $1 million invested in each turbine.
It doesn’t matter to Hamilton, he said, if any electricity that would be generated by the Bluestem project stays in Nebraska or goes out of the state. He sees it as an exportable product, the same as beef or corn.
While there’s evidence of division of families and friends over these issues in the Sandhills, he said, every generation has had something outside their comfort zone with which to contend. A Save-the-Sandhills group in the 1960s fought center-pivot irrigation. Before that it was single-pay electricity, or barbed wire or the railroad.
“There’s going to be opposition when something new comes along,” he said.
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