The War Next Door
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.
"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.
"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."
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.
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.
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).
Another planning document, extracted by a Freedom of Information Act request by Not 1 More Acre!, went even further: "The terrain described below runs the gamut from complex canyon country with great similarity to Afghanistan to high scrub desert and grasslands reminiscent of the Middle East. The land is sparsely populated and eminently suitable for the type of extended operations envisioned.... Currently, this plan does not envision acquiring the towns scattered throughout this area, although some of the smaller towns may become available over time if PCMS obtains large adjoining tracks for training. The possibility of conducting training exercises in and around the towns...is potentially an exciting opportunity that 7ID and Fort Carson will explore."
That shoving people off their land and even shutting down entire towns was being viewed by the military as "an exciting opportunity" didn't win many supporters for the plan. When PCMS was first established, there had been little organized opposition and few ways to get a dissenting message out, except through the generally boosterish newspapers of southern Colorado. This time was different.
The PCEOC people set up a website and online petitions. They organized letter-writing campaigns directed at elected representatives. They showed up at public hearings with signs and sound bites. They were careful not to sound like a bunch of unpatriotic radicals, stressing that their own ranks included a scattering of veterans who'd seen action ranging from World War II and Korea to Vietnam and the Gulf War. Their message was simple: They'd already done their part, and the Army had failed to justify coming back for more.
"We kept hearing, 'Somebody has to sacrifice,'" Robertson says. "But we have. We've sacrificed part of our community, part of our economy. People in El Paso County say it's okay for us to sacrifice more, but they don't want it in their back yard."
El Paso County's congressman, Doug Lamborn, supported the expansion, and in 2007 the Army managed to obtain authorization from the Pentagon to purchase more land at PCMS, despite a moratorium on military land acquisition going back to 1990. But the mounting public pressure began to turn the tide. Locals were able to enlist other members of Congress, including John Salazar and Marilyn Musgrave, to push through a measure suspending appropriations for PCMS expansion.
In a joint letter to the Pueblo Chieftain, Salazar and Musgrave estimated that PCMS expansion would cost the regional economy up to $313 million a year. "Despite the Army's best claims, the additional troops assigned to Fort Carson are not going to travel to Pueblo to bank, buy clothes or get home loans," they wrote. "Our neighbors in Walsenburg, Trinidad, Thatcher, Model, Delhi and Tyrone and families all across southeastern Colorado, however, are the ones who currently conduct their business in Pueblo."
The funding ban was only the first punch in a two-fisted combination that stopped the Army in its tracks. The second came in Judge Matsch's courtroom. Louden, Herrell and Jean Aguerre, a former Wirth staffer who grew up in La Junta, went to court on behalf of Not 1 More Acre!, contending that the environmental impact statement the Army had prepared to move forward with construction on the existing site was fatally flawed.
Matsch noted that the Army had declined to specify how often or how extensively it planned to use the site, so it was difficult to gauge how much damage might be done by increased maneuvers. But it was clear from reading the after-action reports of previous exercises, the judge wrote, "that even those limited training exercises have had severe environmental consequences" — and the Army had failed to persuade him that it could avoid worse damage in the future.
"The obvious conflict between the training needs of the troops at Fort Carson," Matsch concluded, "and the use of the PCMS in an environmentally sustainable manner makes it apparent that the Army's purposes will not be accomplished without expansion of the PCMS."
He threw out the Army's plan to increase the frequency, duration and intensity of training exercises on the site. Then he ordered the Army to pay the plaintiffs $200,000 in legal fees.
In the summer of 2009, a few weeks before Matsch's ruling, Robert McLaughlin became the new garrison commander at Fort Carson. He soon began to hold meetings in southern Colorado to better understand the controversies surrounding Piñon Canyon.
"I knew that the first order of business was to gain trust and confidence," says McLaughlin, a 25-year veteran who's seen tours of Bosnia and Iraq. "It was hard for me as a soldier to hear what they had to say, that there was so much mistrust of an organization that does so much for the country with an all-volunteer force. But I understand their perspective."
Over the past sixteen months, McLaughlin has met monthly with a "working group" of local business, cultural and environmental interests to talk about what the Army is doing with PCMS. He's pledged to find ways to get more of the money spent on training into the southern Colorado community, through contracts with vendors for supplies and encouraging soldiers to shop in the area. He figures his troops spent $90,000 eating at restaurants in the Walsenburg-Trinidad area during maneuvers last summer. "There have been more contracts issued in southern Colorado in the last year than the total of the last thirty years," he says.
But the promise of economic benefits is intertwined with the Army's latest proposal for ramping up training on the site. The new environmental assessment (EA) declares that expansion isn't being considered at this point, while declining to quantify just how much additional training is planned at PCMS. Using Fort Carson's training grounds as a basis of comparison, the EA suggests that the site could be used up to nine months of the year, giving the land three months to recover — even though previous studies concluded that the area couldn't stand more than twenty weeks of maneuvers a year.
McLaughlin notes that brigade-level operations for troops facing deployment overseas are now being conducted as a "capstone" exercise at the National Training Center in California and other key installations. He contends that future maneuvers at PCMS will probably be on the battalion, rather than brigade, level except for certain command-and-control operations. "It's not an increased use of Piñon Canyon," he insists. "We don't want to go legally over what the [Matsch] ruling was. I wouldn't characterize it as 'increased use,' but more routine use of the training area."
But the plaintiffs in the lawsuit complain that last summer's large-scale, month-long mechanized maneuvers on the site, the first training operation of its size in nine years, indicates that Fort Carson plans to go well beyond the "historic use" of the site, in defiance of a court order.
"It's a challenge to the decision that Judge Matsch made nineteen months ago," says Jean Aguerre. "That was a very clear, very strong opinion that there can't be expanded training at Piñon Canyon. But even though taxpayers have given the military 30 million acres in this country, somehow they have to keep pushing it on a site that's been used less than twice a year since its inception. Piñon Canyon has never satisfied their training requirements, and it never will."
Recently an attorney for Not 1 More Acre! wrote to the U.S. Army's Environmental Command, protesting that plans for improvements to the site, including the construction of two clamshell shelters for tank and helicopter maintenance, were specifically prohibited by Matsch's order.
"It's against the law to segment an action for the purpose of getting around environmental requirements," says Wooten. "We feel that's what this is. Rather than doing what they proposed to do in the previous environmental impact statement, they're doing little pieces of it here and there. They're walking a fine line."
McLaughlin doesn't see it that way. "We'll never violate the law," he says. "We were going to do some construction that was problematic, so I took it off the table. But if we do have more routine training and mechanized forces out there, it's more economically viable to position equipment out there, and it will have to be maintained. That will create some local jobs. Is it prudent to build some kind of clamshell to protect the equipment from the elements? I think so."
The prospect of a combat aviation brigade — 2,700 soldiers, 600 ground vehicles, 120 Apache, Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters — descending on PCMS makes Mack Louden think about the dust cloud that hung over the place for weeks at a time in the 1980s, when tank maneuvers were a "routine" part of the training regimen.
"If I overgraze my property, that dirt will go over to my neighbor's place," Louden says. "One-eighth of an inch of dirt on a grama grass plant will kill it. They realized back in the '80s that the land couldn't take that kind of pounding. But now they want to use the heck out of it."
Wooten remembers touring the PCMS after large-scale maneuvers in the 1980s and seeing huge ruts in the ground that would take years to heal. "We saw sixteen-inch deep tracks where it got wet and they kept drilling," he recalls. "That soil can't support those tanks. But their line of thinking is, 'We're not managing it wrong, we just don't have enough. If we had more to manage, we wouldn't cause so much damage.'"
He says he would have more confidence in the current management of PCMS if the Army hadn't dispensed with the services of independent advisers on environmental and preservation issues. "The scientific community isn't involved any more," he notes. "Congress doesn't have an unbiased look at what's actually going on out there."
McLaughlin says that the Army has trimmed contracts with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service consultants and is doing more "insourcing," relying on its own ecology and cultural-resource experts for oversight. But he also plans to bring in more stakeholders for tours of the site before and after maneuvers, a process he started last summer.
In deciding that the military hadn't made its case for increased training, Judge Matsch relied heavily on the Army's own after-action reports of past maneuvers. The reports are, at times, an unusually candid recounting of the blunders involved in dispatching large quantities of humans and vehicles to a haven of threatened wildlife and supposedly off-limits cultural resources. For example:
1985: "For the most part bivouac areas such as the one located at grid coordinates 840530 received almost complete removal of the lower vegetative component (grasses)."
1985: "It appears that most damage to posted archaeological sites occurred during daylight hours when signs could be observed rather than during blackout maneuvers...97% of the sites were impacted by vehicles to some degree."
1990: "Numerous violations of restricted area designations continued to occur regardless of combined efforts of management and BDE personnel to abate same."
1996: "A Swift Fox was found crushed in a heavily tracked area, and several Texas Horned Lizards were found crushed under the MSRs. Both of these species are candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act."
2002: "Considered unnecessary destruction (298) and damage (145) of mature trees greater than six feet in height continued to occur...Resulting damage/destruction of both the upper story (trees) and grass vegetative communities (1797 acres) was estimated to cost in excess of $148,460 for accomplishment of mitigation operations."
The most recent environmental assessment dismisses the after-action reports as anecdotal and irrelevant; after all, what's the destruction of 298 trees — even trees that might take 150 years to replace — in an area estimated to contain more than four million trees? The study contends that the Army has become much better at steering clear of sensitive areas since 2002, the last year for which such reports have been released.
But last summer's Warhorse Rampage exercise demonstrated that many of the same problems are still occurring. Troops somehow strayed onto 39 restricted historic sites, as well as into areas that hadn't yet been surveyed for possible cultural resources and were supposed to be off-limits. In five instances, historic structures were "clipped" or run over by vehicles, and one "prehistoric architectural feature" was also affected. "Unfortunately, that exercise revealed a number of flaws in Fort Carson's exercise of its responsibilities with regard to protection of historic properties," the assessment admits.
McLaughlin says the maneuvers caused only minor damage, including "one crack" in a cultural site: "It was a very good learning experience for everybody."
Others are less upbeat. After the maneuvers, Rebecca Goodwin, a boardmember of Colorado Preservation Inc., saw deep tracks near tepee rings above Cowboy Springs, a watering hole used by cowboys and Indians for generations. The site is considered worthy of the National Register of Historic Places, Goodwin says, and is far too fragile for military operations. She's concerned about the ease with which the troops managed to breach so many sites.
"To go past a fence and not realize it until you've clipped a building — it isn't the first time this has happened, but it's never happened on this scale," she says.
Surveys of the Piñon Canyon region have identified over 5,500 sites of historic importance, including more than 600 significant enough to be eligible for the National Register. Among the jewels are five historic ranches, including the Brown Sheep Camp, a large complex that was once owned by Governor Julius Caldeen Gunter and features what Goodwin calls "one of the most remarkable barns in all of southeast Colorado" — a two-story, cantilevered adobe affair.
A wood barn nearby is full of cowboy drawings and brands — the buckaroo equivalent of rock art, detailing a rude history of the area. But Goodwin says the Army is "doing demolition by neglect," letting the buildings fall apart while weeds grow waist-high, awaiting the next lightning strike and grass fire.
Federal law requires that the military formally consult with state preservation officials before taking actions that could impact historic sites, but the Army failed to do so before Warhorse Rampage. In a recent letter to Colorado historic preservation officer Ed Nichols, Fort Carson officials pledged to do better next time.
Aguerre claims the damage from Warhorse Rampage to the environment and the cultural resources was more extensive than the Army will admit. "Any conscientious rancher knows you have to keep the grassland in shape for the next generation," she says. "The military has to keep their training land in good shape, or the next generation doesn't train."
Fifty years ago last month, Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered the most enduring speech of his presidency: his farewell address, warning citizens of the increasing size and influence of what he called the military-industrial complex. Eisenhower recognized that the economic and political forces associated with a thriving arms industry, coupled with a massive defense establishment built on fear, could pose an even greater threat to democracy than a foreign power. America's best hope, he said, rested with the ability of "an alert and knowledgeable citizenry" to keep the generals and military contractors in their place.
Half a century later, the complex is doing just fine. The annual budget for the Department of Defense now stands at $700 billion a year, double what it was before the 9/11 attacks. Outlays for Homeland Security and various intelligence agencies amount to another $125 billion a year or more; no one's really sure how much goes into the black hole of black ops.
And last week an alert and knowledgeable citizenry, several hundred strong, attended public hearings in Trinidad and La Junta. They had come to listen and offer comments in response to the Army's plan for increased training at the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site. Almost all of the speakers were strongly opposed to the plan. Several called for the Army to publicly abjure any expansion ambitions by relinquishing the waiver it received years ago authorizing acquisition of more land in southern Colorado.
Ranchers say uncertainty about the future of the land surrounding PCMS has chilled the local real estate market and put plans for improvements or investment in their property on hold. Even though the Army has declared that expansion is no longer an issue, the shadow remains.
"How much more militarization of the surface of this planet do we really need?" Herrell asks. "If this is all up in the air, do you invest in your property? Can you plan on giving it to your kids? Are you going to be able to sell it to someone else who wants it as a ranch? There's a genuine dark cloud hanging over the region."
As long as the waiver is still in effect, the opposition crowd believes expansion is still a real threat. The funding ban that prevented additional land acquisition is up for renewal in the House of Representatives next month, and Salazar and Musgrave, the champions of the measure four years ago, are no longer members.
"We have a junior Colorado delegation, with Cory Gardner and Scott Tipton in there," Wooten notes. "We're not sure they're going to be able to fend against Mike Coffman and Doug Lamborn to continue that ban."
One way locals have sought to guard against expansion of PCMS is by documenting the environmental and cultural values of their own properties, giving outside experts free access to their land to survey wildlife and historic sites. From 2007 to 2009, researchers from the Colorado Natural Heritage Program visited 26 ranches and documented 41 rare animal species and 36 rare plants — a remarkable count for privately owned areas that have no formal conservation protection.
"The most surprising thing is how intact the larger landscape is," says CSU ecologist Rondeau. "The ranchers have been actively managing it. It's really a credit to the private landowners that we found as much as we did, and most of it was in pretty good condition. They're good stewards of the land."
And good fighters, too, Lon Robertson insists. "We don't think this is ever going to go away," he says. "This is the life we live, and we're going to have to defend it if we're going to continue to live that way.
"These families have been here for generations. They aren't out here because they give up easily. They're out here because they don't mind a little adversity. And they know how to push back."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.