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Transmission lines along Prowers County Road 13, north of Lamar, are shown in this Jan. 21, 2022 photo. Xcel's Power Pathway project, designed to improve the state's electrical grid, received pushback from the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes when some proposed routes encroached on the viewshed of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Proposed routes for electrical towers and power lines on a massive project that could have infringed on the cultural integrity of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site have been removed from consideration after a variety of feedback – including from Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, Xcel Energy confirmed Tuesday.

The project, called Colorado’s Power Pathway, would extend lines and install new substations across the Eastern Plains to improve the state’s electrical grid. At an estimated cost of up to $2 billion and covering about 650 miles, the final routes remain to be determined. But the new adjustments have answered concerns that some proposed paths would compromise views and violate the spirit of legislation that created the national historic site and called for preserving the original landscape.

Revised maps indicate that Xcel has eliminated some of the possible routes that in December prompted complaints from the representatives of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, many of them descendants of the more than 230 people killed by Colorado volunteer soldiers on Nov. 29, 1864, or of those who survived the attack.

Their concern stemmed not only from routes that would spoil the natural views from what they consider a sacred and spiritual place, but also from their lack of input to the process. Outreach and meetings since then, including conversations earlier this month and as recently as last week, led to Xcel taking what the tribes considered the most problematic routes off the table.

“They’ve pretty much listened to us and eliminated anything that really is against what we want,” said Ryan Ortiz, a tribal administrator for the Northern Arapaho who was party to the discussions. “Then they set up a subsequent meeting after hearing our thoughts and viewpoints on it and came back with the plan now that virtually eliminates anything within a 10-mile radius.”

Ortiz, who emphasized that he was speaking as an individual tribal member, noted that the tribes will have further internal discussions. They originally asked for a minimum of 12 miles of cushion to preserve the viewshed, but a small section of a proposed route comes within 10 miles and talks are ongoing.

“They did a really good job listening to us,” he said, “and we hope to wrap that up and have good outcomes.” 

The Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes victimized in the massacre eventually relocated to lands outside Colorado, with some heading north to Wyoming and Montana, while others headed south to Oklahoma.

In a statement, Xcel said that in the area near Sand Creek it removed some of the proposed routes for a variety of reasons – including public feedback, the proximity of some routes to the 12,583-acre Sand Creek site, plus engineering and land use considerations like the location of homes and businesses. 

“Over the last year we’ve worked closely with local landowners, government officials, and other stakeholders, including tribal officials, when developing initial focus areas, and published the revised route options last week,” Xcel said. “We are hosting open houses throughout the project areas in the coming weeks and welcome feedback at those open houses, or through our website, email or phone number at any time.”

In this screenshot from Xcel’s website, the dotted red lines indicate proposed routes for power lines that have been eliminated — in this case, lines closest to the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. Green dotted lines indicate the new preferred route. (Screenshot)

The company has said it would like to start permit applications next summer and complete them in 2023. The decision on a final route past the Sand Creek site will be made by Kiowa County commissioners. The power lines will be strung between single-pole structures ranging from 105- to 140-feet high.

According to the most recent maps, another proposed line in an optional segment of the Power Pathway project in far southeast Colorado also has been eliminated. That line would have run close to the site of the former World War II-era Granada Relocation Center – also known as Camp Amache – which may soon be brought under the National Park Service umbrella.

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)

The controversy over constructing infrastructure too close to cultural sites reflects an issue that has gained traction nationwide as large-scale projects like wind and solar arrays are planned to meet renewable energy needs. Xcel’s project is a key part of its plan to help Colorado meet its mandated goal of reducing carbon emissions 80% by 2030.

But such projects also can threaten to encroach on areas that have significant meaning from a cultural frame of reference. 

Developers of a 400-turbine wind project in Idaho proposed a footprint that would be both on and adjacent to the Minidoka National Historic Site, once another World War II Japanese American incarceration camp. Like the Sand Creek site, Minidoka’s remote landscape helps tell the story behind the camp, and relatives of those incarcerated there want the energy project either moved or scaled back. 

Similar objections scuttled a solar project near the Manzanar National Historic Site in California, another former incarceration camp.

The National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit that aims to preserve and protect the national park system in the U.S., noted that it’s primary concern earlier in the process was lack of input from the Cheyenne and Arapaho governments, particularly direct descendants of the massacre victims.

Tracy Coppola, the nonprofit’s Colorado senior program manager, applauded Xcel for “ultimately doing the right thing” by eliminating the problematic routes and committing to other measures that will make the towers less visible from a distance. But she also stressed that the conversations with the tribes should have taken place before any proposals were put on the table.

“Now and in the future, it is our hope that a process of meaningful and coordinated consultations will occur, with Xcel and other entities,” Coppola said, “because the national significance of the site and the manner by which its viewshed is directly connected to its cultural landscape cannot be overstated.”

Kevin Simpson is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a general assignment writer and editor. He also oversees the Sun’s literary feature, SunLit, and the site’s cartoonists. A St. Louis native and graduate of the University of Missouri’s...