Pueblo Chieftan: Canyon Crossroads

February 8, 2011
In The News

By Peter Roper

  If you listen to the voices on both sides in the five-year battle over the Army's effort to expand the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site - you hear fatigue.

  "It feels like a steamroller," newly elected Las Animas County Commissioner Mack Louden told The Pueblo Chieftain in November. "It seems like if the Pentagon can't get what it wants one way, they just come at you from a different angle. But they just keep coming."

  Louden was reacting to news last year that the Air Force intends to conduct low-level, special-operations flight training over Southern Colorado - a new initiative the Army insists has nothing to do with its 238,000-acre Pinon Canyon training area. That denial doesn't mean much to opponents of expansion, who have read Army planning studies about the value of conducting joint-force maneuvers if Pinon Canyon can be expanded.

   On the other side, the Pinon Canyon fight has given the Army one political bloody nose after another. Even as Army planners relocated more soldiers to Fort Carson starting in 2007 - it is now the home once more of the 4th Infantry Division - the Army lost in Congress. Southern Colorado lawmakers imposed funding bans on the Army spending any money on expanding Pinon Canyon. And the state General Assembly passed anti-expansion legislation in 2008 and 2009.

   The Army's insistence that it needs more land at Pinon Canyon because modern warfare requires bigger expanses of both land and airspace hasn't swayed many opponents. They argue the Defense Department already has 25 million acres of training land around the nation.

   So five years into the fight, the Army now says expansion is no longer the objective. The recession has reached into the Pentagon, too.

  "There are no plans and no money to expand Pinon Canyon," Brig. Gen. James Doty, the acting Fort Carson commander told The Chieftain editorial board several weeks ago. Doty said it carefully and with emphasis. "And that appears to be the situation for the foreseeable future."

  One reason the Pinon Canyon fight has been so bitter and consuming for landowners around the training range is that the shadow of the Army's intentions has been hanging over the Pinon Canyon area and northeast Las Animas County for five years. It's been a stalemate with no end in sight - largely because the federal legislation authorizing expansion is still on the books and available whenever the Army chooses to renew the campaign.

  "The Pentagon continues to defy every level of democracy while holding an entire region and its people hostage," Jean Aguerre, president of the Not 1 More Acre! opposition group responded when the Army released a new environmental study two weeks ago to justify ramping up the training schedule at Pinon Canyon. If that rhetoric seems heated, it only reflects the deep-seated frustration of grass-roots activists who have been fighting the Army for so long.

Changing players

  Now, there is a wholesale change on the political front. The lawmakers who were hard-line opponents of expansion - U.S. Reps. Marilyn Musgrave and John Salazar - are gone, defeated for re-election in 2008 and 2010.

   In their place are U.S. Reps. Scott Tipton and Corey Gardner, both Republicans. They are junior to two key Colorado Republicans who are vocal supporters of expanding Pinon Canyon - U.S. Reps. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs and Mike Coffman of Littleton.

   Tipton and Gardner opposed the Army's expansion plan on the campaign trail last year, saying they would fight the use of eminent domain and that the Army has failed to make a case for needing more land. But the ban on federal funding to expand the site is likely to expire this year unless either Tipton or Gardner champions it.

   Tipton said he intends to meet soon with Army Secretary John McHugh. Pinon Canyon is in Tipton's 3rd Congressional District.

  "I'm not going to do anything to hurt the farm and ranch community and I've given my word on that," Tipton said last week. If necessary, he'd push to renew the funding ban, Tipton said.

    But Tipton and Gardner aren't the only new players in the Pinyon Canyon chess game.

   Also gone are key allies in the congressional fight. U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, was chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs. He allowed Salazar to add the funding ban to the Army's annual military construction budget for the past four years. Edwards, though, was among the Democrats who lost office last November. And with Republicans now the House majority, GOP lawmakers chair all the committees.

   Colorado's two senators, Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, both Democrats, have voted for the funding ban when it's come to the Senate as part of the annual House budget legislation. Both echo others in saying the Army has never made a convincing case for expanding Pinon Canyon.

   But they represent pro-expansion constituents in El Paso County as well as the ranching community that has fought the Army. As such, Udall and Bennet have consistently stopped short of flatly opposing any future expansion.

   Udall said in a recent interview that he is sending McHugh a letter asking that the Army officially take expansion off the table.

   Getting at least one of the senators to take a hard-line against expansion has been a goal of the anti-expansion groups because it probably would end the legislative fight for the duration of that senator's term in office. In the 1980s, when U.S. Rep. Ray Kogovsek, D-Colo., was fighting the initial creation of Pinon Canyon, the Army had the backing of both Colorado senators - Democrat Gary Hart and Republican Bill Armstrong.

The big map

  It was a sunny Saturday in May 2006 when an overflow crowd of Southeastern Colorado ranchers and their families packed into the Robert Hoag Rawlings Public Library - angry and agitated that the Army was back, wanting to acquire much more land around the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site northeast of Trinidad.

   Many in the room had lost ranchland to the Army in the early 1980s when the Army created the 238,000-acre training range of prairie and shallow canyons - a process of condemnation and dislocation that left bitter feelings for many landowners in the area.

   They came to that Saturday meeting in Pueblo armed with a startling Army planning map - often referred to as the Big Map - that showed Pinon Canyon steadily growing from its 238,000 acres to a huge military reservation that covered the entire southeastern corner of the state, a training area of more than 7 million acres.

  Fort Carson and Army officials had been disavowing that map for weeks, insisting it wasn't a planning document they were familiar with.  Furthermore, they hoped to reassure ranchers that the Army's decision to expand hadn't been made yet - and if the go-ahead was ever granted, the Army intended to rely on the "willing sellers" they insisted were readily available in the area.

  A replay of the bitter land-taking of the 1980s was not even being considered, they insisted.

  In some ways, that Saturday morning meeting was the opening skirmish in the battle that's been fought in Congress, the Colorado General Assembly and federal court. It has pitted the Army against landowners and their supporters - some national in scope - who have rallied to the cause of challenging the Pentagon's claim that it needs more training land in Southeastern Colorado.

   As a new Congress begins work this year, the scorecard shows the ranchers have won almost every fight since 2006. They've forced the Army to scale back its first land request from an additional 418,000 acres (in 2007) to just 100,000 more acres on the southern border (in 2008). Now the Army says it only seeks to make heavier use of the current Pinon Canyon training range.

   If was clear in regional meetings that the Army hadn't expected the intensity of the opposition. Keith Eastin, the Army assistant secretary in charge of installations, had made it clear in 2007 that expanding Pinon Canyon was the Army's top priority for land acquisition and as President George Bush's administration wound down the following year, the Army made made one last push to lease an additional 100,000 acres from landowner Craig Walker.

  However, when The Chieftain reported on March 10, 2009, that lease was about to be announced, Walker disavowed any intention of leasing land and Eastin canceled his trip to Trinidad.

   Eastin left his job a few weeks later and ranch opponents relaxed for a time as President Barack Obama's administration took over. It wasn't until  June 2010 that Obama appointee Katherine Hammock moved into Eastin's seat. She visited Fort Carson for the first time just last month.

Push back

  A major force in pushing the Army back to square one was the annual funding ban that Musgrave and Salazar drove through Congress beginning in 2008. Annually, they blocked the Army from spending any money to expand Pinon Canyon.

 Meanwhile, state Reps. Sal Pace, Wes McKinley and others persuaded the General Assembly to approve legislation denying state permission for the Defense Department to use eminent domain to expand Pinon Canyon. (That law that likely would not stand legal challenge in federal court.)

 Moreover, the state lawmakers pushed through a law blocking the state from selling the Army any of a polka-dot pattern of public lands around Pinon Canyon that are dedicated to public education.

   In federal court, the Not 1 More Acre! opposition group, won a lawsuit in 2009 that tossed aside as "inadequate" the Army's environmental study it offered to support a heavier training schedule at Pinon Canyon. Unfortunately for the Army in that lawsuit, the controversial Big Map was unearthed as a 2004 Army planning document.

   Also uncovered was a list of "action-action reports" on the limited training maneuvers that had occurred at Pinon Canyon. U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch said the reports indicated the Army was damaging the land even with its limited training.

   So why aren't the ranchers more confident that they've won the war over expanding Pinon Canyon? Largely because the Pentagon and the Army have a seemingly endless bench of players and plans to dedicate to the campaign.

   Two weeks ago, the Army released a new environmental assessment to justify heavier training at Pinon Canyon. Essentially it dismissed key criticisms in Matsch's ruling.

 The new assessment argues there is too little data to make any determination on what amount of training the prairie range can withstand but that whatever training schedule the Army adopts, it will follow the appropriate environmental regulations.

   Lon Robertson, president of the Pinon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition, said the ranch community has been hard-pressed to thwart the Defense Department's constant pressure to increase its use of the region.

  "But we're not going away," he said in a recent interview. "The people who have fought expansion for the past five years aren't going to give up now."

Link to Original Article: http://www.chieftain.com/news/local/article_1d69613e-326b-11e0-ba9d-001cc4c002e0.html