I lost my camera, some of my hide and a piece of my heart to Piñon Canyon.
That's the stunning swathe of scenery east of Trinidad and hard on the 235,000-acre Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site, which the Department of Defense created in the early 1980s in the largest condemnation of private property in this country's history. But that wasn't enough to satisfy the Army. For the past five years, property owners here have been fighting the Army's attempts to expand the PCMS by another 100,000 acres, another 418,000 acres, another 1.5 million acres. "The maneuver area at PCMS is insufficient to realistically meet the training needs of the current Force at the brigade and regiment level at this time," reads one 2004 document. According to a planning map that leaked out of nearby Fort Carson in 2006, the feds have their eyes on a training area that could total up to seven million acres.
But the ranchers who live on this land, work this land, don't want to give so much as another inch. This past weekend, Representative Wes McKinley, a rancher from Walsh who represents the southeastern corner of the state, organized a trail ride into Piñon Canyon, onto land that's considered so at risk that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has placed it on its list of the country's most endangered historic sites. The ride covered just a fraction of the land the Army wants, but it took us through millions of years of history — from the hogback to the west, which is full of fossils and could be declared a historic site itself because of the Native American remains there, to the old homesteads and Robbers Roost hideout, to the graffiti that visitors to the canyon left in 1721, and again in 1921. And then there's the canyon itself, with a breathtaking drop down to the Purgatoire River. "It's amazing how that scenery changes," says Ella Biber, who owns the land we were riding on.
Ella is the widow of Stanley Biber, the renowned doctor who put Trinidad on the map as more than a mining and ranching town: It's considered a top spot for sex-change operations. But the doctor was also a rancher, and 24 years ago he and Ella bought thousands of acres right next to the PCMS. "We were in the cattle business, and we needed to get more cows, so we needed to get more land. We didn't anticipate any threat of the Army coming back and wanting our land," Ella says.
But then a few years ago, Ella heard that the Army was looking at these 13,000 acres as part of its training-ground expansion — not that she heard it from the Army. "I have not had any contact with them," she complains. "It's disrespectful for the Army not to approach me, being as I'm right next door." She doesn't have any intention of selling the land, she insists, but she thinks that if she could just talk to Army officials, she might be able to help them recognize how important this land is. "They need to see what we're fighting for: our way of life. Most people in the city don't understand our kind of livelihood down here. We appreciate the land. We live off the land," she says. "We are not the enemy." After all, Stanley Biber was in the service in WWII and Korea.
Along with McKinley, Tony Hass, the regional director of the Farm Bureau who uses the Biber land for grazing, led a posse of riders that included Abel Benavidez, whose great-grandparents came to the region from New Mexico in 1872, when the Maxwell Land Grant went sour. And Jamie and Gerald Smith, who've been ranching in the area since they married in 1965, and wonder why — when the Army already has so much unused land down in Texas, where they went to school — it needs any more in Colorado. And Jim Montoya, the Las Animas County Commissioner whose daughter is currently the Round-Up Queen and who loaned me Brother, the horse that galloped through much more of Piñon Canyon than I had planned on seeing. And Terrance Carroll, the Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, who's about as far from a rancher as you can get: He was raised in inner-city Washington, D.C., moved to Colorado for grad school, and became first a Boulder police officer, then a minister, then a state legislator, then a lawyer and, last January, Speaker of the House — a title emblazoned on his very large Western belt buckle. "It's not like you'd expect me, of all people, to have embraced that lifestyle," he admits. "I do put up with a lot of Cleavon Little Blazing Saddle jokes — but I haven't been treated the same way he was when he became sheriff."
Although Carroll was also an Eagle Scout who spent a lot of time outdoors, "I never really had a lot of contact with ranchers before," he admits. "I didn't know what to expect. They're good people. They're salt-of-the-earth people. They don't have huge egos, and they don't run around talking about their resumes. But they're exceptionally smart people." Which says a lot, given Carroll's resume.
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Carroll first heard about Piñon Canyon back in 2006, "when Wes started talking about it and then ran a bill that would have denied the federal government the ability to annex the land," he recalls. Carroll liked McKinley — "He is one of the most unique personalities in the legislature," he says — but opposed the bill. "I had never been to Piñon Canyon, and I didn't know how important it was. Then in spring 2008, I went on a trail ride with Wes over the proposed expansion area outside Walsenburg. It completely changed my perspective on what was going on down there. It would be a huge loss for the state if we lost that area. A loss to ranching, to our economy. And what happens to those towns? To La Junta, Trinidad, the Arkansas Valley?"
When another Piñon Canyon bill came up in the last session — this one banning any state land from going to the Army for the PCMS — Carroll supported the measure, and it passed. While the feds can still trump the legislative action, McKinley appreciates Carroll's transformation — both mental and physical. "He didn't totally understand, and I can see why," he says. "That's been my mission." And in the process of educating Carroll to the importance of ranching in Colorado (this region of the state produces more beef than any other region in the country), he's also watched Carroll "become a real cowboy. He's not self-conscious about his hat and his boots," McKinley points out.
While Carroll is already anticipating riding in the Stock Show parade, McKinley's not sure he'll be able to convince the Speaker to go for his latest stunt: riding a horse into the Capitol and then down the aisle of the House chambers. To show how easy it would be, McKinley urged his mule, Marvin, into the lobby of the Trinidad La Quinta. Marvin has had tough missions before — he carried McKinley across much of the state back in 1996, when the rancher ran for Congress on the platform of telling the public what had really happened with the Rocky Flats grand jury, on which he served as foreman — but he may not have sold Carroll on turning the State Capitol into a hitching post. Not yet.
But he's definitely sold Carroll on saving Piñon Canyon. "Even if we just lose 100,000 acres, it's a huge loss," Carroll says. "And the Army taking over a quarter of our state? That's unacceptable."