Army abandons Pinon Canyon expansion plans

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A long-festering conflict between southeast Colorado ranchers and the Pentagon slipped into a wary truce Monday, when a senior Army official announced a strategic retreat from plans to expand the 367-square-mile Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site. The move, coming after months of unofficial hints and assurances, illustrates the shifting priorities of military training in an era of "reduction in force" -- as well as the political savvy and effectiveness of a determined, grassroots group opposed to the expansion that refused to give up.

Just a few years ago, the Army was looking at adding huge chunks of southeast Colorado to the existing PCMS in order to accommodate battalion-level maneuvers and tons of fancy new equipment. 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.

But ranchers in the area appealed to Colorado's congressional delegation to stop the madness, leading to an annually renewed ban on any appropriations to fund even a modest expansion of the site. A federal lawsuit challenging the Army's environmental stewardship of the site -- as well as damage done to archaeologically significant areas -- further weakened the case for expansion.

On Monday Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army, formally requested cancellation of the waiver the Army obtained in 2007 allowing it to pursue land acquisition for PCMS, a step she described as "unprecedented." Under pressure from Senator Mark Udall to renounce expansion, and hardly in a position to embark on grander maneuvers at a time when the Pentagon is restructuring for more technologically advanced, smaller scale operations, Hammack and the rest of the brass decided to cut their losses.

But credit, too, the determined neighbors of PCMS, particularly the backers of Not 1 More Acre! and the Pinon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition, who've led the lobbying effort and continue to keep a close eye on the environmental and economic impacts of the current site. Private citizens often don't fare well against the power and pleasure of the federal government, but these groups have done an impressive job in schooling the U.S. Army in how to be a good neighbor. For more on southern Colorado, read "How Alamosa's garden plot got paved over." Have a tip for this reporter? E-mail alan.prendergast@westword.com.

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