A controversial high-voltage power line planned through Nebraska’s Sand Hills will move forward after the Nebraska Public Power District received federal approval of its plans to protect an endangered insect along the route.

NPPD expects to start building the 225-mile, 345-kilovolt transmission line this fall.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision, issued June 12, declined to further hold up the $400 million R-Project over concerns about affected cultural resources or migratory birds. Objections in those areas “do not provide any new or substantive information” to justify extending Fish and Wildlife’s environmental review, the agency’s decision said.

The agency generally endorsed NPPD’s plans — outlined in Fish and Wildlife’s final environmental impact statement in February — to minimize impacts on other species and such “cultural resources” as Native American burial grounds and the Oregon-California and Mormon trails.

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The R-Project would allow for carrying wind energy, and Fish and Wildlife’s final decision referred to potential future wind farms — the greatest concern of Sand Hills residents — by saying it’s “reasonably foreseeable” that such projects could require federal scrutiny before they could be built.

NPPD spokesman Mark Becker welcomed the long-awaited Fish and Wildlife decision to allow the project.

“Again, there are a lot of conditions we’ll have to adhere to” in minimizing the line’s various impacts, he said. “We’re sure Fish and Wildlife will be monitoring what we do and how we do it.”

But State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon condemned Fish and Wildlife’s decision as ensuring “even more harm to this singularly unique place in the world, as well as the people who will be forced to be neighbors to these destructive monstrosities.”

Federal and NPPD officials “have steadfastly ignored the many concerns from hundreds of citizens and the mountains of hard evidence and research presented to them,” said Brewer, whose district covers much of the route.

“Nebraskans should be outraged at the careless way in which the most beautiful part of our state will now be destroyed so a handful of wealthy (wind-power) investors can make money off an incredibly wasteful government program.”

The high-voltage R-Project line will start at NPPD’s Gerald Gentleman Station south of Sutherland, run north over Interstate 80 and the two Platte River branches into northwest Lincoln County, then turn east to meet U.S. Highway 83 south of Stapleton.

It’ll generally parallel the highway to a point east of Thedford, where it will turn east and run through northern Thomas, Blaine, Loup, Garfield and Wheeler Counties to a planned new substation southwest of Clearwater. NPPD also plans to expand a substation at the R-Project’s bend near Thedford.

NPPD officials have long said the R-Project will improve the reliability of the state’s electrical grid and meet the publicly governed utility’s commitments to the multistate Southwest Power Pool.

The district’s now-approved plan to mitigate losses in American burying beetle populations calls for capturing beetles found during construction.

They would be relocated to a 600-acre site in Blaine County that NPPD plans to buy and develop as a substitute beetle habitat. The utility now is moving to finalize that purchase, Becker said.

NPPD also plans to install “spiral bird flight diverters” and reflective “avian flight diverters” to warn away sandhill cranes and endangered whooping cranes where the line crosses the migratory Central Flyway.

Sand Hills opponents, who have questioned the diverters’ effectiveness, wanted Fish and Wildlife to more fully explore the R-Project’s risk to migratory birds, especially the whooping crane.

But the agency’s June 12 decision forecast only “short-term, low-intensity effects” on whoopers from the power lines. If greater damage to the species are observed, it said, NPPD has agreed to seek to amend its permit and develop a mitigation plan for the rare birds.

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