A Descent on the Argo
We were somewhat reluctant Argonauts as we clambered aboard this strange-looking amphibious vehicle for a descent into Otter Canyon. It had six oversized, puffy tires and a bathtub-like body with camouflage paint. Calvin, our pilot, had earlier that day led us into his property on the south bank of the Niobrara River, through which the Keystone XL is slated to cross, ostensibly NOT in the Sandhills.
The absurdity of that designation is immediately evident all around us, on that ridge over Otter Canyon where dune crests roll off to the south, mantled with prairie sand reed, blazing star, evening primrose and dozens of other typical Sandhills species. At my feet is open sand; a few sky-blue lizards scurry after a smorgasbord of grasshoppers among prickly-pear pads and bunch grasses. Below these sands the waters of rains have sifted for thousands of years into the Ogallala Group, only to eventually hit the impermeable White River Group below and flow horizontally to the depths of canyons like Otter, where they emerge as crystal clear springs. Otter is just one of dozens of canyons descending to the Niobrara, but this one is in the path of the pipeline.
Earlier that morning, from Calvin’s log hunting cabin on the rim of the Niobrara Valley, we were able to survey at least 10 miles of river either direction. Across the river we hear the unmistakable bugling of some sandhill cranes, which I did not expect in July. “Yeah, some just like it here I guess” says Calvin, “and more folks have seen whooping cranes along this river than will admit to it.” To the west, the far bluffs are cloaked in ponderosa pine trees, marking the easternmost extension of the Rocky Mountain Coniferous Forest. Reaching up from the margins of the narrow floodplain up into the steep canyons is the Eastern Deciduous Forest of elm, ash, walnut, hackberry and others that is crowned at the upper slopes with a savanna of bur oak. These ancient trees are fire-tolerant and meet the prairie like a disorganized phalanx of giant mushrooms. At their feet are spreading shrub clones of sumac, attempting to reclaim turf from prairie grasses by shade.
“Over across there in Carl’s place” says Calvin, pointing across to a pasture with an idyllic surround of trees, “is where they plan to drill down 60 feet, then bore straight under the river about a mile, and turn up to come out over there.” He points east to a place where the steep canyons are broken by a more gentle-sloping approach. “That’s where the wagons crossed headed for the gold in the Black Hills. Most of them never made it through the badlands.” I reflected on how different the geology and hydrology is across the Niobrara, north into the Dakota hardlands. No sand hills, few fresh springs, just some rivers that flow milky white with silt, volcanic ash and toxic radioactive minerals. The few desolate playas and sandy stream courses go dry within days of the spring rains. There would be no water for horse or ox, or the prospectors. And then they would reach the badlands. What madness as the teams pulled in vain in the sticky clay soil, as the prairie dogs laughed at them and vultures circled overhead. In the west, the blue summits of the Black Hills would be just visible, mirage-like over the simmering waste. All this while paranoid of the ever-watching eyes of the Lakota, whose most sacred lands, whom our government had granted to them (by what authority?) forever, were about to be violated. “But, what am I saying? It won’t happen. I won’t let them,” Calvin chuckles knowingly as I come back to the 21st century. Upon passing from the gravel road onto his pastures, one meets a few signs familiar in this area: “Stop the Pipeline” and “Save our Water” but also there are the homemade signs that say “Castle Doctrine enforced on this property.”
Cindy, our liaison with the locals, who became an activist when the original route planned for the Keystone XL passed over her family’s ranch south of here, explained that the Castle Doctrine is a Wyoming law that allows landowners to shoot anyone on their property they don’t know. Now, Calvin appears pretty easygoing, and clearly has a great love of this land, as most “sandhillers” do, but I don’t doubt his resolve to protect or the accuracy of his aim. Hunting stands are perched everywhere, almost as ubiquitous as the Sandhills windmills.
So Cindy, Adrian and I settle into our small seats in the Argo while Calvin revs the engine. Adrian and I share the limited rear leg space with tripod and camera, as his assignment is to photograph as many creeks and streams in the pipeline’s path as he can. Otter Canyon is one of those streams. Even a lifelong local like Cindy is excited to see Otter Canyon for the first time. Our ride begins from the high rim down a steep dune face, then around a fence. “I can never quite tell where the trail begins,” shouts Calvin over the noisy engine. He and his sons have cut many trails in this expansive piece of land, and there are only a few places one can traverse down to the river, even on the Argo. He finds the stand of small bur oaks that mark the spot, and we pass from the open prairie into shady woodlands on a bumpy, narrow path. Prickly ash and stinging nettle occupy the understory with Virginia wild rye, all reminiscent of deciduous woodlands one might find on Nebraska’s eastern border. There’s a lot of bird activity too, but bouncing as we are I can’t identify anything smaller than the wild turkeys. Eventually we reach a small clearing where the path is crossed by a deep-cut ravine, so we dismount. This is one of the springheads, quietly gurgling into a jewelweed thicket. We follow on foot to where the forest opens up onto Otter Creek. It has cut 12-foot banks that reveal ages of deposited gravel bars and sand. “Have you ever found arrowheads here?” asks Cindy. “No, but lots of fossils,” Calvin replies.
The stream is about 6 feet across and 6 inches deep, with many multicolored gravels. These come from the beds of paleorivers that eroded the young Rocky Mountains and spread the debris as vast sheets to the east. I believe Calvin’s comment because in those times the mammals were evolving, sometimes into giants, sometimes bizarre armored beasts, and many into the progenitors of today’s fauna. I lift a few rocks and find on their undersides the squirming insect community that says, with more surety than any Hach kit, “this is a pristine, swift, stable, high-oxygen stream.” A flat green insect scurries across the rock surface. “Look, look at this!” I excitedly lift the rock to the others. “It’s a water penny. You hardly ever see these except in the best stream conditions.” There are also case-building caddisflies, and stone fly nymphs. I pull out a grotesque gray larva, fat as a severed finger. “This will become one of those horrible horse flies with the banded, Technicolor eyes,” I say, passing it on to hesitant hands. More springs join the flow from either side, some concealed in tall gardens of bulrush and gigantic arrowhead.
I glance upward at the V-shaped canyon we are in, 200 feet below the rim. I try to imagine a 3-foot diameter pipe stretching over it, throbbing with the hot excrement of the Athabascan tar sands, fueling our insatiable thirst for a hydrocarbon cocktail. “Nine thousand barrels a day” I remember Cindy saying, “that’s considered an insignificant leakage to TransCanada.” How much less than that, I thought, would forever alter any of these spring-fed streams and probably not even appear on their radar, certainly not to warrant even a token of what they euphemistically call “restoration.” Such leakage would end up in the Niobrara, Nebraska’s most beautiful river, where one can canoe for days feeling like an 18th-century beaver trapper returning with hard-won pelts. How long would a response crew take to get here? And who would pay? How long will TransCanada be around or will some other company absorb its assets but not its responsibilities? That’s what happened when Asarco left lead in the soil in Omaha. Will they agree to set a bond to cover these eventual costs? Why hasn’t Nebraska demanded as much? By relocating the Niobrara crossing to Calvin’s land, they conveniently sidestepped the stretch of the Niobrara designated “wild and scenic,” and a certain amount of scrutiny from the National Park Service. But our own State Department of Environmental Quality is impotent, reduced to offering commentary on the new proposed route but with no authority to change it. And the landowners, they have no legal recourse to “just say no” to a foreign corporation’s designs for their lands, however many generations ago it was protected by the likes of “Old Jules” Sandoz. And yet we know, as we’ve seen on the Yellowstone and Kalamazoo Rivers, spills happen.
A Line in the Sand
Marie Sandoz captured well the paradox of development for European settlers in the Sandhills. Her father did much to encourage settlement, just not too close. O’Neill still preserves the law office of Moses Kincaid, whose namesake act promoted settlement in this region, though the cattle barons predated and often outlasted the sodbusters. They encouraged the laying of railroads to move cattle to markets, and the most resilient communities followed the tracks. Many of the native ponderosa pine canyons along the Niobrara were harvested for railroad ties. Today the nearly 200 miles of the railroad line crossing the northern Sandhills from Norfolk to Valentine has been converted to a hike-and-bike trail. Then the internal combustion engine replaced steam and highways of commerce followed. Then came rural electrification, and isolated settlements gradually abandoned their wind generators that were manufactured over in Sioux City. According to Lieutenant G. K. Warren’s 1855 report, nowhere west of the 97th meridian would the soil and rainfall support continuous settlement, but irrigation changed all of that. From modest ditches to major canal diversions of the Sandhills’ rivers, hydrologists took a practical interest in the porosity of the soils and the underlying aquifer became known.
It is called the Ogallala Aquifer, after the Ogallala Group (a Miocene accumulation of stream- and wind-deposited outwash from the Rockies averaging 600 feet thick), after the rowdy cowboy stop where the type locality was described. Like a sponge the area of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, the Sandhills absorbed rainfall for thousands of years (in spite of the Rocky Mountain rain-shadow effect that creates the semiarid conditions). But with more efficient pumps, the balance of gains and losses had tipped. Though the aquifer seeps under nine states, it is thickest under the Sandhills, in some cases saturating the whole thickness of the Ogallala rock that underlies the loose sand. But outside of Nebraska, the aquifer level has been dropping, and in parts of Texas and New Mexico it has been effectively depleted. Even in Kansas, wells that used to reach it, and springs that were fed by it, are dry.
The dunes themselves form a shape-shifting mantle, temporarily held in place by prairie grasses. In the 1970s several large corporations bought up land in the northeastern Sandhills and plowed it up to plant corn and other irrigated crops. A new technology, the center-pivot irrigation system, made this seem like a good investment. But the locals were skeptical. They knew that to break the covering of grass was risky: no amount of stubble left standing in winter would protect against the fierce winds that blow from the northwest. These same winds mobilized the dunes many times since the last ice age and erode characteristic blowouts wherever the sod is broken. To drive through the Sandhills one is struck by the resemblance of the landscape to a stormy sea, but arrested in a moment. Where blowouts occur, it looks like a giant scoop was taken out, like you might dip into a nut-covered sundae, revealing the creamy interior. Ranchers fight the growth of blowouts by dumping whatever they can find in them, just to slow the wind speed below that critical velocity that moves sand. Such was the concern raised by this corporate misconduct that Nebraska passed a landmark law that limited farm ownership to resident families. In 2005 that amendment was overturned, and new investors are sinking pivots in the Sandhills, lured by the high returns of corn and the abundant groundwater supply.
Meanwhile, a drought ensues that a recent study (based on 2000–2004 data) concluded is the worst in 800 years. Many Sandhills cattle operations have had to sell much of their herds and can scarcely afford to keep up with the cost of supplemental feed. At least the distiller’s waste from ethanol production diverts some corn calories to livestock, but it is no substitute for prairie hay. Self-sufficient ranches have adequate subirrigated hay meadows to put up enough hay for winter feed. But a drop in the water table of just a few feet can dry these interdunal valleys that also serve wildlife so well that the Valentine National Wildlife refuge was established in 1935, soon after the Migratory Bird Conservation and Stamp Acts became law. While Nebraskans are fortunate to have three large national wildlife refuges in the Sandhills, most of the land is in private hands and under traditional ranching care has been improved in range quality and as wildlife habitat. This is part of the allure of the Sandhills that can at times look as green as Ireland, or as dry as Nevada. This summer has been more like Nevada.
Now pipelines are not new to Nebraska, even liquid fuel pipelines. Tar sand bitumen is inherently more corrosive (higher in sulfuric acid) than crude oil, and is mixed with chemicals to lower its resistance to flow (viscocity). It will be pumped at high temperature and pressure (around 1500 psi), and leaks less than 700,000 gallons, less than 2 percent of daily flow, would not trigger the automatic shut-off valves (http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/aswift/the_keystone_xl_tar_sands_pipe.html). TransCanada does not have to reveal what those dilutants are. Carl, who owns the pasture on the north bank where the pipeline will cross, worries what will happen when local fire crews respond to a spill. “What’s in this? That’s what they will want to know. What kind of gas masks and emergency equipment will we need? They can’t go in and fight this mess without answers from TransCanada’s Calgary office. And will TransCanada pay for the equipment and training? Nobody is forcing them to.” He gestures out over the Niobrara where we were just treated to the sight of two newly fledged bald eagles trying to escape the heat in some shade by a sandy pool under a fallen log. “And what happens if the leak is 60 feet underground? How long before anybody knows it?” After the Deepwater Horizon, we all know some oil will rise to the surface, but lots of gunk stays down deep. Is a cleanup even possible? Should we take TransCanada’s word for it? Do you realize how difficult it is to get the tar out of the sand in Alberta and what pollution THAT produces? But almost everyone agrees, while the devil is in the details, all hell is in the carbon footprint.
Part two of this article in our January 2013 issue will conclude Professor Beachly’s observations of the unique and fragile Sandhills and the potential damage to its ecosystem by the pipeline.
Image Credit: Adrian Oliver