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John Waelti: Across Nebraska's scenic and fragile Sand Hills
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Naper, Nebraska, population 84: Tom and I had just been treated to a personalized tour of the White Horse Ranch Museum, guided by a friendly patron of the local café. It had started by asking the friendly waitress, Dazee, "Is this genuine Nebraska beef?" I had not intended it, but she promptly made a special trip to the kitchen to find out.

She quickly returned, assuring me that it was genuine Nebraska beef. I followed up with another question, "What do tourists do around here?" A friendly gent at the next table ambled over, informed us of the nearby historic White Horse Ranch, the museum down the street, and the willingness of another patron, Mable Sattler, to give us a tour.

After an interesting several hours in that sun-baked Nebraska town, it was time to move on. We climbed into my GMC and headed west on Nebraska Route 12, billed as the Outlaw Trail, to Valentine, the heart of Nebraska beef country. We continued on U.S. 20 to Merriman, then south on Route 81, through the famous Nebraska Sand Hills.

In late afternoon under a cloudless sky, the grassy hills are a greenish tan color. The hills are dotted with large herds of beef cattle, mostly Black Angus, grazing on lush grass. Functioning windmills are visible everywhere, feeding stock tanks in the bottomlands. There is no traffic except for an occasional local vehicle, and no roadside clutter to ruin the scenic vistas.

The Sand Hills cover some 20,000 square miles, about one fourth of Nebraska. It is a geologically young formation, of some 13,000 years. After the last ice age, wind took hold of loose sand, blowing it into vast dunes. Precipitation allowed grassland plants to take root in the shifting sand, stabilizing the dunes.

The hills contain only a thin layer of topsoil with little organic matter, making it unsuited for crop farming. Some early attempts were soon abandoned, although there are some irrigated areas on the edges of the Sand Hills.

The Sand Hills rest above the Ogallala Aquifer. The water level is above the surface of depressions between the grassy dunes, resulting in many small lakes, ponds, and acres of wetlands scattered over this vast region.

As a result, the region is host to more than 720 species of plants, numerous species of wildlife, and is the central flyway for many species of birds. It is the largest dune formation in the western hemisphere and one of the largest expanses of native grasslands. While not suitable for crop farming, it is ideal for grazing cattle. Those steers, cows, and heifers must be a lot happier grazing those lush hills in the fresh air than their counterparts being fed out in those horrible huge feedlots that dot the Great Plains.

The straight highway traverses the hills, alternating with the valleys and ravines that contain watering holes and areas of wet, marshy lands. We reached the crossroads town of Hyannis, which appears to be at about the center of the Sand Hills, and proceeded south across more lush hills and valleys dotted with grazing beef cattle.

It is easy to see why environmentalists and ranchers in the Sand Hills are vigorously opposed to the Keystone XL pipeline that is planned to go through these ecologically fragile Sand Hills. Having had a career in economics, public policy, and, at least marginally, involved in politics, I note the policy dilemmas and incongruous alliances of various stakeholders.

Cattle ranchers are generally hard core Republican. As a generalization, Democrats are more opposed to the pipeline than Republicans. So does this mean that ranchers will become Democrats, or love President Obama if he vetoes the pipeline as many, though not all, Democrats urge?

Probably not. Let's remind ourselves that politics makes strange bedfellows.

Do Sand Hills ranchers consider themselves "tree huggers?" Definitely not. Maybe "environmentalists?" Probably not. How about "conservationists?" Very probably all would consider themselves "conservationists."

Oh, the wonderful flexibility of the English language.

In any case, the pipeline issue, like so many other public policy choices, comes down to selecting the least undesirable of undesirable alternatives - a Hobson's choice.

In the fading afternoon sunlight, we reached the southern edge of the Sand Hills. The sky darkens with clouds and rain pounds down as we reach the city of Ogallala on the Platte River.

The Platte River Valley, route of the old Oregon Trail. Later the UP Trail, and the transcontinental Union Pacific Railroad. Then it became the route of U.S. 30, dubbed the Lincoln Highway, and finally, I-80.

My memories of Ogallala are less than fond. Some decades ago, 59 years to be exact, I had a brush with the law there, leaving $14 to enrich the city.

Four other teen-aged Marines from the Midwest and I had just completed Radio Operators School in San Diego, and were heading home for a few days respite from the iron discipline of the Corps. A cop nabbed me for a minor traffic violation. Heck, he could have just warned me. But he dragged me (not literally) into an office before an officious looking magistrate who could have just let me off with a warning. But no, the jerk jerked over 15 percent of a PFC's measly monthly salary from me. Whatta jerk.

Life is weird. As aging vets, we get a helluva lot more respect now than we ever did when we were teen-agers actually wearing the eagle, globe, and anchor.

And the politicians? Those jerks jerked the GI education benefits from us in the mid 1950s. I guess they figured that since we weren't being shot at, three squares and a few bucks a month was enough - and probably figured we were just a bunch of dummies and didn't deserve to go to college anyway. But I digress.

Its people are friendly there and I like Nebraska - except for Ogallala, that is.

- John Waelti of Monroe can be reached at His column appears Fridays in The Monroe Times.