The county, a rural Connecticut-sized swath that spans the rolling Sandhills of northern Nebraska, has a reputation for being fiercely independent – home to what’s known as “Prairie Populism” – and the proposed $5.4 billion, 1,200-mile-long pipeline from western Canada to the Midwest has raised a host of environmental worries.
“We basically just voiced our concern that we were concerned about the oil,” County Supervisor William Tielke says. “Are we concerned about leaks? Absolutely.”
The board of supervisors unanimously passed a resolution in April 2013 “to oppose all crude oil and tar-sands pipelines across Holt County.”
Nebraska's York County, another rural area to the south, narrowly missed passing a similar symbolic measure last summer, failing by a 3-2 vote.
In all, 15 counties passed measures supporting the pipeline: five in Montana, seven in South Dakota and three in Nebraska.
“When they build this, it’s going to be the largest taxpayer in the county,” says Alan Aker, chairman of the Meade County Board of Commissioners in South Dakota. “They’re going to pay 10 percent of all the taxes we get. It’s not a construction tax, it’s an ongoing property tax, and we’re not going to be providing any services additionally like we would when we have a new resident. So it’s a slam dunk from a fiscal point of view for the county.”
As Richard Dunbar, commissioner in Montana’s Phillips County, described, “It will bring in about $5 million a year in property taxes,” about half of which would go to the county and the local school district. “That’s huge, that much every year.”
Another seven counties in Nebraska, plus one county each in Montana and South Dakota took no action either way. (Boone County in Nebraska and Dawson County in Montana did not respond to multiple phone and email inquiries.)
“Everybody’s got an opinion and stuff, but that don’t mean nothing unless you have the authority to make a decision about it, and we do not,” says Clair Jones, Nance County, Nebraska, commissioner. “We don’t have anything to say about it.”
Holt and York counties’ opposition to the pipeline stems, in part, from environmental concerns: The water table in Holt is closer to the surface than in the other parts of the state, officials and advocates say, and York gets much of its water from wells. Both factors have fueled concern about contamination from oil spills.
“Ranchers there [in Holt] have a very deep understanding of the water and soil there,” says Jane Kleeb, director of the group Bold Nebraska, which has vigorously opposed the pipeline. “York is a lot of corn and soybeans, and because they have so many irrigation wells, that’s their biggest concern – that oil could get into their irrigation wells.”
Yet Holt’s also home to that fabled Prairie Populism – or, as Nebraska political consultant Philip Young describes, “a whole lot of folks who are ranchers who kind of want to be left alone.”
“They’re people who don’t like the EPA and OSHA coming in and telling them how to ranch, and they don’t like anybody telling them what to do,” he says.
Kim Robak, a senior partner of the Nebraska lobbying firm Mueller Robak, offers a similar view: “They’re very independent and very anti-government – and not only anti-government, but anti-outsider. ‘Stay off my land, leave me alone.’ Even if it’s a business that you might expect conservative Republican Nebraska to be supportive of, there’s a, ‘This is my land, and this is my heritage,’ and that mentality in Holt County is very strong.”
Others are more skeptical. Political consultant Sam Fischer credits the county’s opposition to Kleeb and Bold Nebraska. “She’s done a hell of a good job putting a lot of pressure and scaring people,” he says. “The people with pitchforks speak louder than the people with reason.”
Yet, Robak argues, “You can’t campaign unless people buy what you’re selling. That’s a very conservative part of Nebraska – Jane’s a liberal, and she came in with a message that sold.”
One reason it did sell, perhaps, is heritage. Homeowners’ and ranchers’ ties to their land in Holt County are at once intimate and tangible – on display in their very own homes.
“If you go in any of these guys’ living rooms, you’ll see a picture of the family as homesteaders on that land,” Kleeb describes. “There’s this deep sort of emotional connection to the land.”
Nevertheless, she insists, it is the environmental concerns that have remained paramount. “It’s more than an independence streak. There are no oil pipelines or tar-sands pipelines in that part of the state – there were a lot of alarm bells going off for old-timers and ranchers.”