Pinon Canyon controversy: Tim Wirth blasts "bankrupt" defense policy

Former Senator Tim Wirth, a formidable opponent in the 1980s of the U.S. Army's big plans for its training site in southeastern Colorado, views possible expansion of the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site as possibly a greater threat to the area's environment and economy today than it was then. Now the president of the United Nations Foundation, Wirth recently lamented the lack of leadership among Colorado's Congressional delegation and denounced the Army for trying to "piggyback on the economic challenges of the region."

Wirth's remarks came in an e-mail to colleagues and supporters, calling attention to the recent Westword cover story "The War Next Door." That feature examined local ranchers' battles against massive expansion of the Pinon Canyon site -- leaked documents show that at one point the Army was contemplating buying up to seven million acres of southern Colorado and displacing 17,000 people -- and the current proposal to increase training on the existing site, despite a history of damage to sensitive historical sites and environmental degradation.

Although the Army says it's put all expansion plans on hold, many opponents view the effort to increase training as the first volley in a campaign to revive the expansion proposal by "overwhelming" the existing resources.

Wirth calls the Pinon Canyon controversy "a Colorado case study of much of what is currently wrong with our political system. The economics are as bankrupt as the defense policy that drives this dangerous proposal."

The U.S. Army first acquired close to 250,000 acres for the PCMS, much of it in Las Animas County east of Trinidad, thirty years ago. As a senator, Wirth played a major role in getting 16,000 acres of the most fragile and archaeologically rich land involved in the purchase transferred to the U.S. Forest Service, in what is now known as the Picketwire Canyonlands. But since that time, the Army has prepared various studies looking at a range of expansion possibilities, claiming that the existing site is too small for brigade-level exercises.

Several years ago, Colorado representatives John Salazar and Marilyn Musgrave spearheaded a legislative ban on funding for the expansion, but that prohibition is up for renewal this year -- and Salazar and Musgrave are no longer in Congress. "You might ask where Colorado's Congressional delegation can be found," Wirth wrote. "Some have focused on the alleged economic opportunity of a Pinon Canyon expansion... As far as I know, no members of the current delegation have taken the side of the embattled ranchers, committed to protecting these sensitive and unique lands, or publicized the enormous economic inefficiency of attempting to use the U.S. military to prime the economic pump."

One of the stated goals of ramping up use of the Pinon Canyon site is to better prepare troops for large-scale combat infantry operations. But Wirth doesn't buy that argument; in another e-mail, he points out that the Pentagon leadership is shifting away from the massive boots-on-the-ground deployments of the past. He cites a recent address at West Point by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, cited in this column by James Carroll of the Boston Globe, in which Gates bluntly declared, "Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it.''

Wirth concludes: "The Army seems bent on this expansion strategy, even as it seems to run counter to the overall change in policy as described by the Secretary; as it violates any rules of good economics; and, if successful, the expansion will lead to the destruction of one of the most unique and precious ecological reserves in the United States."

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