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As Xcel electrifies the Eastern Plains, how close is too close to the Sand Creek Massacre site?

Park advocates worry about cluttering the Eastern Plains’ “cultural landscape” amid routing for a key part of Colorado’s clean energy plan

The view east from the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Park advocates and members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, whose descendants were victims of the 1864 massacre, are concerned that a massive Xcel Energy project could infringe on the "cultural landscape" by placing towers and transmission lines in the viewshed. (Provided by Matt LeBlanc)

A major Xcel Energy power project could put up new transmission lines within view of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, sparking concerns among tribal leaders and park advocates that it could mar the site’s cultural and aesthetic character.

Dubbed Colorado’s Power Pathway, the project would string lines and construct new substations across the Eastern Plains in a nearly $2 billion, 650-mile effort to bolster the state’s electric grid. Although a final route hasn’t been determined, park advocates contend that some current proposed paths would compromise views and violate the spirit of legislation that called for preserving the original landscape.

In addition, they’re concerned that the most direct tribal stakeholders — the Cheyenne and Arapaho, many of them descendants of the more than 230 people killed, more than half women and children, by Colorado volunteer soldiers on Nov. 29, 1864, or those who survived the attack — have not yet had an opportunity to submit comments. 

“If you look at the site, there is little diversity in terms of elevation,” said Conrad Fisher, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and also a board member of the Sand Creek Massacre Foundation. “You can see for miles. Transmission lines would be very visible, and that’s not very aesthetic to the surrounding area. They would impede and disrupt people who come there for spiritual quest and ceremonial activity.”

An official for the Northern Cheyenne said that the tribe is aware of the project but hasn’t yet issued a formal response. “But the tribes have always wanted the landscape to be as close to what it was when the massacre happened,” said Teanna Limpy, the tribe’s historic preservation officer.

Ryan Ortiz, a tribal administrator for the Northern Arapaho, said the site is best described as “a sacred place.”

When we go back to that site to reflect, to commemorate, to mourn, to try to heal, seeing some big power lines there doesn’t help with that, aesthetically.”

Ryan Ortiz, Northern Arapaho tribal administrator

“It isn’t like any other national historic site, probably anywhere, because of the atrocities that went on there,” he said. “So when we as the tribes go back to the site, we’re going back to a place of sorrow, because that time era, and the massacre itself, was basically the beginning of historical trauma for our tribal people. 

“When we go back to that site to reflect, to commemorate, to mourn, to try to heal,” he added, “seeing some big power lines there doesn’t help with that, aesthetically.”

The debate over how close is too close reflects a burgeoning issue nationwide as proposed construction of large-scale renewable energy projects like wind and solar arrays, key tools in the fight against climate change, bump sometimes uncomfortably against cultural landmarks. 

In Idaho, developers are interested in constructing a 400-turbine wind project, with attendant infrastructure, both on and adjacent to the Minidoka National Historic Site, land in south-central Idaho that was a World War II Japanese American incarceration camp. Like the Sand Creek site, Minidoka’s remote landscape provides critical context to the story behind that chapter of U.S. history.

Survivors of the incarceration camp and their descendants have pushed back, suggesting that the project either be moved or scaled back. Several years ago, a proposed solar project near the Manzanar National Historic Site in California, another former incarceration camp, was derailed over similar objections. 

An optional segment of the Power Pathway project in the far southeast corner of Colorado would pass by the site of the incarceration camp that was known as the Granada Relocation Center, or Camp Amache, just outside the town of Granada. It’s unclear whether that portion of the project will be needed or approved by the Public Utilities Commission. But Xcel took pains to map potential lines around Amache, whose bid for National Historic Site designation is currently under consideration in the U.S. Senate.

John Hopper, the local school administrator whose students have been involved with running and maintaining the site for years, says that he hasn’t heard of any potential issues regarding the viewshed.

“Now, if all the sudden there’s about 50 windmills going up around Amache, that’s where I throw the flag and that’s a personal foul, 15 yards on them,” he said.

The key interests in the 12,583-acre Sand Creek site — the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes — relocated to lands outside Colorado after the massacre, with some heading north to Wyoming and Montana, while others headed south to Oklahoma.

Reggie Wassana, governor of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, said he’d need to see how close any transmission lines would come to the Sand Creek site but that he would oppose anything that compromised visitors’ ability “to look and see how history was made.” Tribal officials are reviewing the proposal.

This aerial view of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site and the surrounding landscape, overlaid with a scale of miles, illustrates the extent of the viewshed from the site focusing on ground level.  Elevated transmission towers, depending on their height, would extend the view accordingly. It is adapted from a 2013 National Park Service natural resource assessment.

The possible routes that the project could take do not cross the boundaries of the Sand Creek National Historic Site, and the National Park Service has no standing with regard to what happens on private land, said Janet Frederick, the site manager and also interim tribal liaison. She has attended informational meetings but at this point has no official comment on the project.

“Of course, anytime that there’s anything that can impact that important viewshed, we’re concerned and we’re monitoring what their plans are,” Frederick said.

Xcel said it began working with representatives from the historic site last summer to both provide information on the project and field concerns about the viewshed. Although one commenting period closed Nov. 24, prompting concerns that tribal representatives haven’t had time to weigh in, Xcel says that it is preparing to reach out to them directly to factor in their feedback. 

More public meetings and analysis will continue in 2022, said Hollie Velasquez Horvath, Xcel’s regional vice president for state affairs and community relations. (Interested parties also can submit a comment via its website.) The company would like to start permit applications next summer and complete them in 2023. 

The decision on a final route past the Sand Creek site would fall to Kiowa County commissioners, she added.

“By the time we get to the county commissioners, our goal is to find the best route with the least significant impacts in that community,” Velasquez Horvath said, “and balancing that with the constructability as well as the cost.”

Advocates for the Sand Creek site emphasize they have no objection to the Xcel project, which the company touts as a critical part of its vision for an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050. The lines are expected to span more than a dozen counties and portions could be in service by 2025. The rest could be finished over the following two years.

Xcel is also seeking approval for its electric resource plan, which would add 6,000 megawatts of renewable energy to its system. The new transmission lines would deliver it to consumers.

“So both of them tie in together,” Velasquez Horvath said. “They’re one and the same, I guess you could say. We can’t have one without the other.”

Sand Creek site advocates say they simply want to preserve the park’s integrity and honor the intent behind its creation. 

Alexa Roberts, interim board chair of the Sand Creek Massacre Foundation, helped push for the area’s designation as a national historic site more than 20 years ago. She contends that the landscape has remained essentially unchanged since the massacre — a stated goal of the legislation that put the site under the National Park Service, and something that plays a pivotal role in visitors’ experience.

Specifically, the law calls for the government to protect “the cultural landscape of the site, in a manner that preserves, as closely as practicable, the cultural landscape of the site as it appeared at the time of the Sand Creek Massacre.”

There were periods when it looked like oil and gas development was imminent, and large scale agriculture could make an impact on the viewshed. But none of that has happened in all these years.

Alexa Roberts, interim board chair, Sand Creek Massacre Foundation

And while she acknowledges that the NPS has no control over what happens beyond its borders, she notes that ever since Congress authorized the area as a national historic site in 2000, nothing has interfered with the cultural and educational experience.  

“There were periods when it looked like oil and gas development was imminent, and large scale agriculture could make an impact on the viewshed,” Roberts said. “But none of that has happened in all these years.”

The National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit that describes its mission as protecting and preserving the nation’s parks, two weeks ago submitted a letter to the Colorado PUC, as well as Xcel’s siting consultant, laying out its concerns about the viewshed and communication with tribal interests. In addition to the Xcel project, the NPCA also is sensitive to potential wind power construction of towering turbines that rise higher than transmission towers, wrote NPCA Colorado senior program director Tracy Coppola.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Some park advocates recommend that transmission line towers — Xcel estimates the single-pole structures rising from 105 to 140 feet, depending on topography — should be at least 12 miles from its boundaries. In calculating that distance, the Sand Creek Massacre Foundation referenced a 2013 National Park Service-commissioned natural resource assessment, then adapted that report’s findings with regard to the viewshed to take into account the height of the towers. 

Currently, Xcel said, it is evaluating locations for the new transmission lines 4 to 8 miles from the site’s boundary, but also will consider other options. “And that’s all part of our analysis,” said project manager Heather Brickey. “Our goal is to find the best route that meets the needs of the project and also meets the needs of the community.”

The NPS assessment identifies the cultural landscapes and viewshed as “fundamental resources and values for the site.”

“From a cultural and historical perspective, the views are not just about the scenery, but rather an important way to better understand the massacre at Sand Creek Massacre NHS,” the report said. “Visualizing the massacre as it played out on the landscape is a critical part of the visitor experience.”

It goes on to describe how modern additions to the landscape — from oil and gas operations to housing to infrastructure improvements — can infringe on the ability of visitors and descendants to understand the event and its historical context. 

But Fisher, of the Northern Cheyenne, points out that the massacre site represents something more than just history.

“The Cheyenne and Arapaho still view this as though it happened recently,” he said. “It’s embedded in our collective psyche. Respect and honor is a big deal. It’s not just a site of historical significance — it’s a living history, a living memory. And I hope people would realize that and have a better understanding of it.”


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