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. Last week 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 one 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 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' 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.