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.

But official assurances have done little to pacify the opposing alliance of ranchers, preservationists, environmentalists and local officials, who believe Fort Carson is preparing to ramp up its operations on the site to levels never seen before. Last month the Army released a new environmental assessment of PCMS, contending that the area could be used much more intensively than it has been, with little or no adverse impacts. Yet the Army's track record of protecting sensitive sites and wildlife habitat on PCMS has been far from stellar; after-action reports of past training operations chart a toll of smashed trees, squashed animals, ravaged wetlands and crumpled historic sites. One large-scale mechanized operation last summer, known as Warhorse Rampage, resulted in the breach of 39 historic properties, despite barriers and training protocols that were supposed to prevent such violations.

With Fort Carson designated to receive a combat aviation brigade, including 120 helicopters, and the U.S. Air Force seeking to establish a low-altitude training range in the region, locals say they're still in the crosshairs of military expansion plans. But Army officials have insisted that they are better stewards of the land than private interests, and McLaughlin maintains that his troops will take proper precautions and mitigation efforts on any future operations.

"If you fly over [the maneuver site], it will stick out as probably the most pristine environment down there," he says.

Colonel Robert McLaughlin says the Army is only seeking more "routine" training.
Colonel Robert McLaughlin says the Army is only seeking more "routine" training.
Lon Robertson wants to protect the ranching way of life.
Lon Robertson wants to protect the ranching way of life.

Mack Louden — a Las Animas County commissioner, Not 1 More Acre! boardmember and fourth-generation rancher — has flown over the site, and he says the shortgrass prairie is far more fragile than the military will admit. "You can go out there and see the wagon tracks of the Santa Fe Trail, and nobody's used that for 150 years," he notes. "A twenty-ton tank running out there is going to cause damage that's going to be there for a long time. The ranchers have learned over generations that there's certain things you can do and things you can't do. The military hasn't been here long enough to know what works."

Louden, like Wooten and others, regards the latest proposal to increase training at PCMS as a back-door way of demonstrating the need for even more land, by "overwhelming the resource."

"They just keep coming and coming," says the frustrated commissioner. "Every level of democracy has spoken and said no. But they don't like to be told no. It's almost like they're thumbing their noses at us — and at a federal judge.

"They're like prairie dogs. They're always scouting for new territory."


Growing up in La Junta, Jim Herrell was surrounded by a robust, living legacy of the West. The town's Koshare Indian Museum, one of the premier collections of Native American art and artifacts in the state, grew out of a collection started by a local Boy Scout troop scratching for arrowheads and potsherds on the prairie. Herrell's prom date in high school was a great-great-great-granddaughter of Kit Carson.

When Herrell pursued a doctorate in education at the University of Denver, he decided to study anthropology, too. But it wasn't until he came across an apatosaurus — known in those days as a brontosaurus — that he began to take a longer view of the region he called home.

Herrell's dad was a local dentist who knew everyone, and one day in the mid-1980s, a local rancher invited the family out to search for traces of a Native American presence on his land. After a few hours in hundred-degree heat trudging up mesas and down gullies, gnats flying up his nose, Herrell was ready to call it a day.

"I told my brother, 'No person in their right mind would be in a place like this,'" he recalls. "We started coming down the side of a mesa, and we saw bones sticking out of the side of the cliff. It looks like pudding, but when you see articulated skeleton, you can tell what it is."

The bones were too old and too large to be human. Professionals at what was then known as the Denver Museum of Natural History confirmed that the Herrell boys had found an apatosaurus. Other fossil deposits were located nearby, including pieces of a crocodilian visitor. "This was kind of virgin territory," Herrell says. "Some of the big names in paleo were deeply interested."

A few years later, National Geographic featured the 150-million-year-old dinosaur tracks along the Purgatoire in an article about the ways new discoveries were dramatically altering our understanding of the fossil record. A savvy amateur, Herrell went on to uncover more mysteries on his own, including a spiral-fractured left femur of an allosaurus, found in a road cut. What was it doing there? How did one of the most powerful creatures that ever lived suffer such an injury to the strongest bone in its body?

Around the time Herrell was getting a taste for dinosaur hunting, some of the most promising areas in his back yard were suddenly off-limits — property of the U.S. Army. Following the initial purchase of the maneuver site, the military surveyed and boxed up thousands of small artifacts, from old ranch equipment to traces of Indian settlements. The materials now sit in a warehouse at Fort Carson, available to qualified researchers — if they don't mind poring over the objects far from their native context. But fossil digs weren't part of the agenda.

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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. 


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.


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: