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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.

Thanks to the intervention of then-senator Tim Wirth and others, federal legislation in 1991 transferred 16,000 acres of the most fragile and archaeologically prized terrain the Army had acquired to the U.S. Forest Service, which allows limited tours of the famous dinosaur track in what's now called the Picketwire Canyonlands. But Herrell says it's difficult to assess what other treasures might be buried on the maneuver site or in adjacent areas. "If you're going to gobble up land out there, you're going to gobble up some amazing natural resources that belong to the people of the United States," he says. "There are places in that canyon that, from a paleological standpoint, we have no real idea what's there."

Whatever the loss to science, the impact on the ranching community of the Army's arrival thirty years ago has been much more tangible. A few of the parcels that became the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site were bought up from eager sellers, including speculators who'd snapped up distressed ranching operations and flipped them for a quick profit. But some longtime residents refused to leave without a grim court fight over eminent domain that stretched on for years. And the loss to counties and school districts from so much agricultural land being taken off the tax rolls was formidable, far more than what residents stood to gain from the arriving troops.

The Army did its best to present the base as an economic opportunity for the region. In 1981, Major General John W. Hudachek estimated that the military would be dropping $68 million into local communities in acquisition and development costs and pumping up to $5 million a year into local coffers thereafter. Those figures proved to be wildly inflated; most of the construction contracts went to vendors in Colorado Springs and elsewhere, and the site hasn't had a consistent enough rotation of troops to make more than a temporary stir among local businesses.

"I don't think the military has bought two candy bars and a tank of gas in La Junta since the 1980s," says Herrell.

Locals had been led to believe that the Army would assist communities with getting PILT (payment in lieu of taxes) funds. That never materialized, either. When ranchers fretted that their stock might take a stray bullet, Hudachek declared in writing that there would be no live firing ranges. But today the PCMS does have such ranges, along with an entire fake Iraqi village to prepare soldiers for action in the streets of Baghdad. The live firing is limited to .50-caliber machine guns and smaller arms, but tracer rounds have been blamed for grass fires off-site.

The live fire doesn't bother most of the neighbors, Louden says; it's the litany of broken promises that concerns them. "This is a culture in southeast Colorado where your word is your word," he says. "If you ever go against what you told people, you'll never be believed again."

From the neighbors' perspective, the greatest fib of all was the Army's pledge that 235,000 acres would suffice, that there was no plan to expand in the future. That may have been true in the first two decades of operation, during which the site was used, on average, for one or two large-scale exercises a year. But by the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, military planners were already exploring the possibility of enlarging the site to accommodate an increasing concentration of troops that would be stationed and deployed out of Fort Carson. According to new training doctrines, those soldiers would need to prepare as brigade-level combat teams, ranging from 2,500 to 4,000 strong.

In 2006 the Army began to hold scoping hearings concerning planned construction on the site and its proposal to buy another 418,000 acres. Rancher Lon Robertson remembers going to the hearings with a profound sense of déjà vu; once again, Army flacks were making promises of economic boon and claiming they had a thick stack of "willing sellers" ready to turn their land over to the government.

"We had heard before about willing sellers back in the 1970s," says Robertson, now president of the Piñon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition. "Neighbors down here can be 200 miles apart. People know people, so we know that wasn't true. We kept asking them who the willing sellers were, and they refused to tell us."

Taking another 400,000 acres out of private hands would have a devastating effect on the tax base and the ranching community, Robertson knew. But that was only the beginning. Much to the Army's embarrassment, a 2004 planning document leaked out that discussed "the multi-phased acquisition of 6.9 million acres" around PCMS as the ideal way "to train large-scale Joint and Combined maneuvers on a Department of Defense training facility for all U.S. forces and allied forces in the future."

Such a huge acquisition would require massive transfers of public land, including the Comanche National Grasslands, as well as a relentless march through the private-property rolls. The study estimated that 17,263 people would eventually be displaced. But such an option would have certain strategic advantages, including the ability to simulate the kind of deployments soldiers were experiencing in the Middle East. One diagram even presented a model in which troops were shuffled from Saudi Arabia (Peterson Air Force Base) to Kuwait (Fort Carson), and then 150 miles down the road to Iraq (PCMS).

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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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