Long ago, wagon trains faced a dilemma at a large bluff reaching almost to the South Platte River in today’s Lincoln County.
What they did explains why Nebraska Public Power District’s R-Project was halted last week.
O’Fallon’s Bluff doesn’t nearly touch the river today. Its north end was carved off when more recent trailblazers built Interstate 80.
But it did from 1843 to 1866, when Oregon and California migrants feared ambush from Native Americans between the bluff and river.
They veered south over the bluff, then back toward the river.
South along I-80, from Hershey to just west of Sutherland, you can see several “swales” — human-made dips in the long bluff.
The more wagons reused a set of tracks, the deeper the swale. One of the most spectacular sits west of Nebraska Highway 25.
That’s the swale a Denver federal judge cited in overturning an endangered-species “incidental take permit” for the R-Project.
In essence, he told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NPPD to try harder to avoid O’Fallon’s Bluff.
It’s time someone in authority did.
NPPD has fixated on hanging its 345-kilovolt line directly over that swale as it runs west and then north from Gerald Gentleman Station.
One now can stand in that swale and imagine what westward migrants saw. If those power lines hang over it, not so much.
The permit Judge Martinez overturned focuses on protecting the endangered American burying beetle during R-Project construction. He didn’t find fault with NPPD’s plans to that end.
Sandhills residents, who think stopping the R-Project will stop wind farms they oppose, can’t be happy the judge rejected their logical yet belated argument that the power line could further endanger whooping cranes.
But, as Martinez said, a federal agency can’t just look at the laws it itself enforces. It also must examine all other federal laws in play — including historic landmarks.
With the R-Project, the judge said, Fish and Wildlife twice fell short.
It blew off looking at either the environmental or historic impacts of an Antelope County wind farm, now under construction, that would tie into the line’s east end.
And on our end, there’s O’Fallon’s Bluff.
The National Park Service warned Fish and Wildlife in 2016 about letting the line run above the trail swale.
Local and state historians begged the agency and NPPD — first privately, then publicly at a July 2018 hearing in North Platte — to first aim the line away from the bluff.
Neither would listen, they say.
Instead, Fish and Wildlife’s final “environmental impact statement” said it was too late for alternatives.
Wrong answer, Judge Martinez said: Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act to make the government do its homework seriously.
Consider the judge’s words:
“ ... Thus, after gathering useful information on a proposed permit, an agency could legitimately conclude, ‘We see your need for this project but you have not persuaded us that you need to build the project precisely there; permit denied.’
“Yet the (Fish and Wildlife) Service seems not to have considered this possibility, and at the very least said nothing indicating that it understood this alternative was available to it.”
They were told it was, here in North Platte.
NPPD insists the R-Project must run over O’Fallon’s Bluff. It’s the best engineering and financial decision, it says. And Nebraskans need a more reliable power grid.
We certainly agree with the last point.
But Nebraskans expect more of a public utility — one whose directors they elect and whose executives and leaders they employ — than the “my way or the highway” approach NPPD has taken on this project for eight years.
The line would eventually reach U.S. Highway 83 north of North Platte. Running it east from Gerald Gentleman would let NPPD reuse existing power-line corridors south of town.
It might not be optimal. But those pioneers who crossed O’Fallon’s Bluff also had to make a less optimal choice.
It’s likely the faults Judge Martinez found with Fish and Wildlife on the Antelope County wind farm will be cured once it examines it as it should have.
But O’Fallon’s Bluff ought not be further sacrificed to expedience and money.
We strongly urge NPPD to find another way across the South Platte River — be it two or 20 miles east — to avoid further degrading a treasured place where the Great Platte River Road remains visible to modern eyes.