Tarred and Feathered
Because the unstable, porous soil makes crop growing difficult, something like 85 percent of the Sandhills has never come under the plow. As a result they support by far the most intact native ecosystems on the Great Plains, including short-grass, mixed-grass, and tallgrass prairies. Found here are at least 720 plant species, many of which, like the federally endangered blowout penstemon, are tolerant of—in fact, dependent upon—wind and shifting sand. And 314 species of vertebrates are known to breed in this internationally recognized ecoregion.
Jim Hamilton and his sister, Cindy Myers, guided Audubon’s Langan, the Sierra Club’s Paine, and me through Green Valley Township. So close is the Ogallala Aquifer to the surface here that water flowed in the ditches along the dirt roads. Muskrats swam in them; pintails, mallards, and widgeon billowed out of them. Wet meadows teemed with ring-necked pheasants, wild turkeys, western meadowlarks, snipe, killdeer, and red-winged blackbirds. Even when we couldn’t see water we heard the tinkling of chorus frogs. It’s hard to build a fence in this country because when you dig a post hole you get a well.
At the ranch where Hamilton and Myers grew up and which Hamilton now runs, I saw a pipe for a cattle tank that was squirting water three feet into the air. Visitors ask Hamilton what powers it, and some don’t believe him when he accurately informs them it’s the aquifer.
When we crossed into the roadless, virgin prairie behind the barbed wire—where Hamilton and Myers had played in the blowouts, sledded down the dunes, and speared fish—I got a full view of the Sandhills’ wildness and diversity. Strewn among the native grasses were yucca and prickly pear, but there was flowing water even here. It was all a desert in disguise—dry on top, sopping wet a foot down.
“Anyone who thinks Nebraska lacks water hasn’t seen the Sandhills,” intoned Hamilton. And Myers added: “I so wish you could see these hills when they’re cloaked in green and all the wildflowers and cacti are in bloom. There’s no place more beautiful in America.”
Back on the dirt roads, Hamilton showed us the one-room schoolhouse he’d attended when the student body swelled to eight; it’s now abandoned and moldering into the prairie. Clumps of trees marked the sites of recently dismantled houses. The population of the entire township was 84 in 2010, down from 93 in 2000. “When I was a kid it was double or triple that,” said Hamilton. “It’s the same in most of the Sandhills. People keep moving to the cities. We used to have neighbors every half-mile or mile. Now you drive miles and miles to see a neighbor. We’re a small minority, and politicians know they don’t have to pay attention to us.”
The responses of the Nebraska state legislature and the U.S. State Department to public concerns about the pipeline appear to bear Hamilton out. Although the State Department has yet to issue TransCanada a presidential permit, its environmental review seems scarcely more than an effort to feign impartiality. Last October Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that she was “inclined” to support Keystone XL. And her agency has denied a Freedom of Information Act request by Friends of the Earth, the Center for International Environmental Law, and Corporate Ethics International that would have shed light on her ties with the former “Hillary Clinton for President” campaign committee’s national deputy director, Paul Elliott, who is now TransCanada’s chief D.C. lobbyist.
On March 8, 2011, Cindy Myers, Mitch Paine, and nine other Nebraskans flew to Washington to express their concerns about TransCanada’s proposed pipeline to their congressional delegation, the EPA, and Dan Clune, the State Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary. When the group asked that the pipeline be rerouted east or west away from the aquifer Clune correctly pointed out that this was the responsibility of state government.
Yet for three years Nebraskans had been told by Governor Dave Heineman and state legislators that routing pipelines was up to the feds. State senator Chris Langemeier, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, had even labeled any regulating or rerouting on Nebraska’s part “obstructionist,” and his committee has stalled three bills that could marginally protect wildlife and the public from DilBit pipelines.
“It was heart-wrenching to hear some of these folks at the hearings on these bills,” says Langan. “They’re going about their lives. They start getting these somewhat threatening letters from TransCanada asking for easements. In many cases, they felt defeated right then.”
On March 22, 2011, a state senator’s aide told Ken Winston, policy advocate with the Nebraska Sierra Club, about a memo from the U.S. Congressional Research Service declaring that “state law establishes the primary siting authority for oil pipelines.” Winston was shocked when he saw the memo’s date—September 10, 2010. “State legislators seem to have sat on this information,” he told SolveClimate News. “This is bad faith.” Such is the political muscle of the increasingly voterless Sandhills.