Lisa Song/InsideClimate News
Lisa Song/InsideClimate News
Connie and Leon Weichman had just finished branding some calves Monday when Connie's niece texted her the news:
TransCanada, the Alberta-based company that wants to build an oil pipeline through the middle of the United States, had finally agreed to reroute it away from the Nebraska Sandhills where the Weichmans live and ranch.
The couple had been looking forward to this moment for almost four years, but the victory was less than they'd hoped for. TransCanada's agreement with the Nebraska state legislature would keep the pipeline out of the Sandhills, an ecologically sensitive prairie that overlies the Ogallala aquifer. But it wouldn't do anything to prevent the next route from swinging close enough to the Weichmans' property to endanger their land.
And it wouldn't protect Nebraska ranchers outside the Sandhills, who are equally dependent on regional groundwater.
Connie Weichman, a middle-aged woman with graying hair and silver-rimmed glasses, doesn't consider herself an environmentalist and had never before participated in local politics. But along with a steadily growing group of Nebraskans — most of them also first-time activists — she and her husband played a key role in moving the pipeline route out of the Sandhills.
In November, the State Department extended the pipeline review process by a year to study alternative routes through Nebraska. Four days later, TransCanada announced it would forgo the Sandhills route.
Environmental groups throughout the nation have celebrated these events as a significant achievement in their battle to stop the pipeline, which would funnel up to 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. But they also agree that the unlikely activists from Nebraska helped turn the tide.
Ken Winston, a policy advocate in Nebraska's chapter of the Sierra Club, said the Nebraska coalition included concerned citizens from throughout the state.
"This is a movement that has come from Nebraskans, and it's large spread," Winston said. "Their involvement cut across the political spectrum…. Even if they reject the label, they are truly environmentalists in the best sense of the word."
The Weichmans' entry to activism began in 2008, when TransCanada offered to pay them for a two-mile easement on their property. At first they said no, fearing that diluted bitumen — a special kind of heavy crude produced from tar sands oil — might leak from the pipeline into their groundwater. When the company threatened to take their land using eminent domain, they finally accepted the offer. But by then they also were ready to join the fight against the Sandhills route.
It seemed like an impossible task. The Sandhills' sparse population gives residents little political clout: Holt County, where the Weichmans live, is home to just 10,500 people, equal to 1 percent of the population of Rhode Island spread over an area twice as large. The ranchers were more accustomed to fighting blizzards than foreign corporations, and long days of physical labor didn't leave them much time for organizing.
But Connie Weichman persisted. She began writing letters to state senators. She spoke with reporters and drove four hours each way to Lincoln, the state capital, to testify at public hearings.
"People took a stand up here, and they're fighting for their land," she said. "You could say we're like the pioneer people in a way, trying to preserve what [we have]."
Many of the Weichmans' neighbors became similarly involved. Cindy Myers, a nurse who lives nearby, started writing op-eds for a local newspaper in 2009. A year later, she joined her first anti-pipeline rally in Nebraska. After that she said everything just "snowballed."
Almost before she knew it, Myers had flown to Washington, D.C., to meet with her state representatives. She visited the capital again on November 6 to join the anti-pipeline rally at the White House. "It was so inspiring," she said. "So many people came up to me and said, 'You're from Nebraska—thanks for what you're doing. It's because of you that this issue is alive.'"
The original pipeline route wouldn't have crossed Myers's land, but she had grown up with a piece of that prairie landscape in her backyard and she was determined to protect it. The Sandhills, she said, was the "best playground" any child could have, a bizarre mix of desert and water, with dry dunes crisscrossed by meandering streams.
Water pools in low-lying areas, creating instant oases of lush grass. A hundred feet away, desert yucca plants have colonized the tops of sand dunes. Locals call the fine white sand "sugarsand," and when the land erodes from drought or overgrazing, the dunes shift, forming new hills and valleys.
As a kid, Myers sledded down the dunes in winter and caught sand lizards in the summer. When she got thirsty, she pulled apart the irrigation pipes that sometimes rested on the ground and drank what she needed.
No oil pipeline had ever crossed the Sandhills, and the idea that TransCanada wanted to install a 36-inch pipeline in this delicate terrain made her furious. Our water is "the best in the country…and we want to keep it that way," she said.
Twelve thousands years ago, the region now known as the Sandhills was a forest of trees. Then the land was plunged into several cycles of extreme rainfall and drought. Grains of sand blew in during the dry times, piling up into enormous dunes.
The most recent wet cycle began about 650 years ago. As the climate shifted, the sand soaked up rain like a giant sponge. Seeds took root, transforming the region into a prairie. Today, the Sandhills stretch across north-central Nebraska and cover about a third of the state. The sand near the region's western edge is piled 400 feet deep in some places, and a rancher might have to dig 100 feet before hitting water. At the region's eastern edge, where the Weichmans live, the ground is much wetter, with a shallow sand layer and a high water table.
Many families in the Sandhills go back four, five, even six generations. They've learned to survive in a land of extremes, where temperatures can top 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and dip to 20 below zero in the winter. Kyle Graham, a wildlife biologist who has worked in the Sandhills for more than a decade, said people don't end up in this place by accident. Those who stay have deep roots in the area and truly understand "the capacity of the land."
"You can't separate the water from the land and the people," Graham said. "It's an odd place that's hard to understand."
Leon Weichman's parents bought the family ranch in 1949. Aside from serving in the Vietnam War, he has spent his entire life in the Sandhills.
Connie Weichman grew up on a ranch 25 miles away. Her grandparents bought the land in the 1930s and managed to eke out a living through the lean years of the Dust Bowl. "They were just [the kind of] people tough enough to endure the hardships that came with pioneering out here," she said.
Connie's father and two brothers still ranch nearby. Two of her three children are ranchers, including a daughter who raises cattle in Oklahoma and a son who will eventually take over the Sandhills ranch.
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