The War Next Door

Rich in history and imperiled species, Pinon Canyon isn't like any other place on earth. Locals fear that the Army wants to tear the hell out of it.

Some roads take you forward, others to the past. Driving south of La Junta on state highway 109 is a journey back in time — way, way back.

There's little to see but rolling shortgrass prairie and occasional rock outcroppings, but don't be fooled. You are barreling through the bottomlands of a vast sea that covered the plains more than 60 million years ago, during the Cretaceous Period. And as the road dips down to the Purgatoire River, you're descending into even more ancient territory. If you could follow the river west from here — sorry, no road — within a few miles you'd be in a winding, deepening canyon, a crack in the earth that leads back to the days of monsters.

The place still teems with their bones. One quarter-mile stretch of the river's shoreline contains the longest single trackline of dinosaur footprints in North America, more than 1,300 prints embedded in four layers of rock — a lumbering procession of plant-eating apatosauruses and meat-ripping allosauruses.

The Piñon Canyon region contains one of the richest deposits of prehistoric and historic sites in the West.
The Piñon Canyon region contains one of the richest deposits of prehistoric and historic sites in the West.
Jim Herrell opposes increased military exercises at Pinon Canyon.
Jim Herrell opposes increased military exercises at Pinon Canyon.

"There's a rich fauna strata in that canyon, a paleontological potpourri," says Jim Herrell, vice president of instruction at La Junta's Otero Junior College and a seasoned dinosaur hunter. "You're falling through Jurassic strata, some Triassic strata — we have the entire Mesozoic Era out there."

Although it's not on most tourists' must-see lists, Piñon Canyon in southeastern Colorado has had an impressive stream of historic — and prehistoric — visitors. There are petroglyphs, images carved in the canyon walls, that may be 4,500 years old. A European presence dates back to the Coronado expedition of 1540. The surrounding area contains thousands of artifacts tracing the rise and fall of Native American and Hispanic settlements, Anglo sheep and cattle empires and modest dry-farming homesteads abandoned during the Dust Bowl.

Today the region belongs mostly to ranching families, many of whom have run cows on the arid grasslands for generations. They share the land with a wide range of wildlife considered threatened or "species of concern" in Colorado, including the bald eagle, the swift fox, the American peregrine falcon and the plains leopard frog. The unusual biological diversity, scientists say, comes in part from the collision of three ecosystems: the grasslands, the canyonlands (which have drawn mountain lions, bighorn sheep and other animals usually associated with higher elevations), and the northernmost reaches of the Chihuahuan Desert.

"It makes for a very unique environment," says Renée Rondeau, an ecologist at Colorado State University. "It's our most imperiled region of Colorado, and yet we know so little about it."

In recent years, CSU's Colorado Natural Heritage Program has done field research at the invitation of local ranchers, who've been prompted to take action by the arrival of a relatively new, invasive species of concern: the United States Army. In the early 1980s, the military acquired 235,000 acres — 367 square miles — in the heart of the region in order to expand the training capacity for troops stationed at Fort Carson. Establishing the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site touched off a bitter battle with landowners and evolved into a high-stakes condemnation of private property, one of the largest in the nation. Locals still refer to the PCMS as a "black hole" in the center of things, but they insist they're more concerned about calamities still to come.

Read more: Leaked documents show Army's bold plan to acquire 10,000 square miles of Colorado

"The ranching community has healed and moved on," says Steve Wooten, whose cattle ranch borders the site. "We've learned to live with it. But when the Army came back for more, the history came forward again."

Five years ago, in response to base closures and realignments that have boosted troop strength at Fort Carson, the Army announced that it was exploring the acquisition of another 418,000 acres for expansion of the PCMS; the current site just wasn't big enough to support all of the base's training needs, officials said. But leaked documents indicated that nearly tripling the size of the current site was only the first phase of a contemplated takeover of up to 6.9 million acres — a giant box stretching across the entire southeast section of the state, from Rocky Ford to Trinidad to the Kansas border to the outskirts of Lamar.

The audacious proposal triggered outrage across the prairie. In a remarkable show of grassroots organizing, Wooten and other ranchers formed the Piñon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition and lobbied county, state and federal officials to condemn the land grab, ultimately obtaining a congressional ban on any funding for expansion. Meanwhile, a sister organization, Not 1 More Acre!, challenged in federal court the Army's plan to construct new facilities and increase training on the existing site; in 2009, U.S. Senior District Judge Richard Matsch ruled that the Army's environmental impact study was inadequate and the proposed build-up was illegal.

Outmaneuvered and reeling, Army officials first reduced the proposed expansion to 100,000 acres, then officially dropped the idea — for now. Colonel Robert McLaughlin, the Fort Carson garrison commander, says the Department of Defense has no money budgeted for a PCMS expansion, even if the congressional ban were lifted.

"Expansion is a very emotional topic," McLaughlin notes. "There's no funding to expand, no interest now. We want to focus on using the existing terrain."

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6 comments
janisl55
janisl55

Every BRAC'd air base has to be declared a superfund site!  Thousands of gallons of toxic fuel and who knows what other chemicals dumped with impunity by the military.  They don't care--it's not THEIR home they are polluting!  Understand the unlimited arrogance and immorality of military activity--that they consider themselves entitled to land grabs.  Historic site?  Too bad.  They must continue to build their empire, that's how they have TRIPLED the defense expenditure in our federal budget since 1997.  Yes, tripled.  While our highways and schools languish, and after $1.3Trillion spent annually on this immoral folly--the middle class in the U. S. has disappeared.  Look at the resistance mounted around other mil bases--Key West, Norfolk, Whidbey Island; the people whose lives have been profoundly disrupted by this presence CAN fight and CAN prevail vs. the military.  Call and write your elected reps in Washington, D. C.  Tell them you want these bases closed as surplus.  There are hundreds of obsolete, unneeded bases that are way overdue to be closed.  Demand that Congress hold hearings to expedite the closing of bases--this fiscal year.  They are not good neighbors--their presence is a toxic hazard to every resident living in their vicinity. 

JF
JF

Your federal government loves you and wants you to be happy. Stop worrying and keep paying taxes.

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Doug Holdread
Doug Holdread

This is a FABULOUS article that more Coloradoans need to know about. It is a big deal. The Pentagon is trying to federalize and militarize the Southeastern corner of our state. It will cost all of us dearly if they succeed. Not only will it mean the destruction of irreplacable pre-historic and historic treasures and the elimination of a living cowboy heritage, but it will take away from our state to of the largest and most important alternative enegy generation areas for solar and wind. It would be a rotten deal all the way around if we end up using that land to increase our military capability to secure and control foriegn oil fields, rather than using it to secure energy independence for our nation. The ranchers of SE Colorado are not only fighting for their land; they are fighting for the sovereignty of our state and the security of our nation.

ArmsR4Hugs
ArmsR4Hugs

Yes indeed this is a fabulous article every American should read to have an awareness of the goal of the Five-sided Funny Farm to turn our nation into a Military State. There are deadly toxic substances at every military base. The ranchers must not cave in to the DOD; they must preserve their heritage once it is gone it cannot be recovered. My family had their land seized in 1942 that had been in the family since 1910 for a Navy base; quality of life has been in a steady decline over the decades with ever increasing loud invasive noise from aircraft. The DOD is attempting to limit the use of the land declaring Accident Potential Zones (APZ). There is a vast source of information on toxic contamination at: http://www.cpeo.org

 
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