Close up of the Sandhills
Pictured is the Sandhills in western Nebraska, where the R-Project would potentially go through. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Hoppe

Nebraska is known for its Great Plains and prairies, encompassing natural landmarks throughout the state. 

To many Nebraskans and especially Native Americans living in Nebraska, this land is an important part of Nebraska’s ecosystems.  

One vital prairie land in Nebraska is the Sandhills, a region of mixed-grass prairie on grass-stabilized sand dunes in north-central Nebraska.

sandhills 1 - Saving the Sandhills: Highlighting how native communities contribute to the conservation of the Sandhills
Grassland and Sandhills out in Western Nebraska, part of “The Sandhills Journey”. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Hoppe

According to a January 2022 study conducted by UNL researchers, the Sandhills are considered to be the most intact prairie land in the world.

UNL researchers Rheinhardt Scholtz and Dirac Twidwell found that after analyzing satellite imagery from NASA and the European Space Agency, the Sandhills are the grasslands best positioned for long-term conservation.

Despite this new study, the Sandhills have had multiple attempts of oil pipelines, including the Keystone XL Pipeline Project.   

If these pipelines were to go through the Sandhills, there are fears that it would affect not only the land but also potentially the water from the Ogallala Aquifer.

Tasunka Najin, or Warren Gus Yellowhair, grew up in the Great Plains and is an enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne/Ogallala Lakota.  

Yellowhair had protested against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock in 2016, expressing the importance of protecting the land and water from potential contamination.  

Yellowhair affirmed that people have to think about the generations to come. 

“We want to leave the same thing that we’ve enjoyed, clean water and beauty of the animals that you share this beautiful world with,” Yellowhair said.

In the Lakota language, the Sandhills are referred to as the “white sand,” as the land is home to multiple different species.  

“Somebody just passing through, might look at it [The Sandhills] as a real desolate place,” Yellowhair said.  “But when the Lakota used it, it was a wide-open place where millions of buffalo roamed the plains as well as providing underground spring water that was fed by the Ogallala Aquifer.”

Yellowhair fears that if these manmade pipelines break, they would destroy more than just the land and animals.

“The people that love and depend on that water, the freshness, and the purity of that water are affected,” Yellowhair said.  

People like Linda Hennessey, who grew up in Rushville, a town located in the western part of the state that is situated alongside what is known as “The Sandhills Journey.”

“I’ve always loved driving on the highways and seeing the sandhills every day, going to school, work or out of town,” Hennessey said.  

Hennessey said growing up they always intrigued her and has special memories of seeing “The Sandhills Journey” sign. 

“This is silly, but as a kid I remember seeing the ‘Sandhills Journey’ signs while driving with my parents,” she said. “And I remember the sign was red and blue, like Pepsi, so I called it the Pepsi sign.”

Something Hennessey noted is the increase in Nebraska residents that live near the Sandhills posting signs that read “Save The Sandhills.”  

“Many people that live around The Sandhills will have signs now that say, ‘Save the Sandhills’ because of power lines trying to run through there,” Hennessey said. 

According to the Nebraska Public Power District, the north-central portion of the state has reached its power limit, meaning the need for a more robust electricity delivery system, which would be built between the Gerald Gentleman Station near Sutherland to a new substation east of Thedford. 

This project, called the R-Project, would cross over seven counties. Concerned residents of those counties then came up with the organization, Save the Sandhills.  

According to plant experts, to build the R-Project, the NPPD will have to erect a series of 130-150 foot lattice towers across an area that has few roads, uneven terrain and a history of unforgiving soil.

In June of 2020, the United States District Court for the District of Colorado set aside the Incidental Take Permit granted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in June of 2019, thereby placing the R-Project on pause indefinitely.