Army retreating on Pinon Canyon?

The long-simmering battle over the future of a major hunk of southeastern Colorado may have taken a giant step toward resolution in Pueblo yesterday. A senior Army official assured ranchers that the Pentagon has no plans to expand the sprawling, 367-square-mile Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site -- and might even rescind the document that's had neighboring landowners fretting over the impacts of expansion for years, while also raising fears about the area's rich archaeological and environmental treasures.

In a meeting with locals and Senator Mark Udall, Assistant Secretary of the Army Katherine Hammack discussed the general contraction of military operations in the wake of budget cuts and declining troop numbers. Hammack stopped short of promising that the Army would withdraw the 2007 waiver that authorized expansion of the PCMS but indicated that was certainly an option, given the current level of use of the site.

That's a very different tune than the one Army brass was whistling in the Bush era, when all sorts of wild proposals for enlarging the PCMS site to accommodate an increasing concentration of troops stationed at Fort Carson set off a political firestorm. As reported in my 2011 feature "The War Next Door," one leaked planning document discussed "the multi-phased acquisition of 6.9 million acres" around PCMS, a plan that would have required displacing more than 17,000 residents and taking out of private hands a tenth of the state's total land area.

Colorado's congressional delegation has responded to such grandiose visions with an annual ban on any appropriations for PCMS expansion. That the Army scaled back its proposals, then stopped talking about expansion altogether, didn't put to rest ongoing concerns from various quarters, from ranchers bitching about helicopter traffic during calving season to enviros suing over damage to sensitive grasslands to preservationists complaining about tanks annihilating fragile archaeological sites. But a combination of post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan downsizing and the changing nature of combat has made the prospect of large-scale training operations at PCMS increasingly less likely.

If Hammack's superiors are willing to forego future expansion schemes, Udall and his colleagues will no longer have to hustle every year to block them. And the local ranchers and county leaders can maybe get some sleep. Good fences might make good neighbors, but it's an even better deal if you can get your neighbor to sign a nonaggression pact and agree not to jump the fence and invade the back forty.

More from our News archive circa February 2011: "Leaked documents show Army's bold plan to acquire 10,000 square miles of Colorado."