For ranchers and small-town business owners near the U.S. Army’s Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site (PCMS) in southeast Colorado, there have been lots of ups and downs in the last five years. However, after what seemed like a lull in the excitement, it appears things are ramping up once again.
The issue is the Army’s apparent intent to expand the 238,000-acre military training ground northeast of Trinidad, CO, a concern reignited with the Army’s release last week of an environmental assessment (EA) of the expansion’s impacts. The EA was the result of a ruling in federal district court 16 months ago that declared a 2007 environmental impact statement inadequate. Additionally, evidence demonstrated that the Army had failed to protect the prairie grasslands that dominate the area.
“The current EA studies a proposed action that would give us more flexibility in determining how much training we can and will conduct at PCMS,” officials with Fort Carson told BEEF in a written statement. The statement was in response to a request from BEEF to Fort Carson officials about future plans for Pinon Canyon. Fort Carson is a major Army installation near Colorado Springs and operates PCMS.
“Instead of having a ‘default’ position as to how many months we may train each year, we would set our training schedules based on a balance between training needs and the environmental effects of that training,” according to the statement. “Training will not exceed the ability of PCMS to absorb it, and the training will be subject to compliance with all applicable environmental laws and regulations.”
According to Fort Carson officials, their most important mission will always be to train soldiers for full-scale operations. “PCMS is vital to our soldiers. It provides critical maneuver lands to train and ready soldiers for combat. This training cannot be accomplished without the PCMS. Fort Carson alone cannot provide the space necessary to train all our active duty, reserve and National Guard components.”
PCMS was created in 1983. The concerns of residents go back to how the land was originally appropriated and what the Army’s expansion plans are for the site. According to Lon Robertson of Kim, CO, president of the Pinon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition, the Army told Congress in the 1980s that it had 100% willing sellers, so Congress appropriated the money to acquire the land.
“Then when they actually started acquiring land, lo and behold, they didn’t have willing sellers and they ended up condemning a majority of it in order to gain access to it,” Robertson says. “We started hearing them say the same things about five years ago when we found out they wanted to expand it.”
Those close to the issue point out that they’re not anti-military. “This is a pragmatic land use issue,” says Terry Fankhauser, Colorado Cattlemen’s Association executive vice president.
Robertson’s read on last week’s EA is that the Army is saying it expects PCMS will be insufficient to satisfy the expected training load. “The only way to balance environmental laws and training needs is ultimately to expand PCMS,” he says.
Area residents are concerned that any expansion would economically cripple the area and believe 238,000 acres in the PCMS, along with the 137,000 acres that comprise Fort Carson, should be enough. And they see, in the Army’s response to the federal court ruling, a disregard for local interests. “They don’t necessarily fix the deficiencies (the federal court identified in the EIS), they just state they’re going to do their mediation as normal,” Robertson says. “So it’s business as usual from the Army’s perspective.”
The biggest cause for alarm, however, are Army documents that indicate potential expansion plans up to as many as 6.9 million acres. While the Army has documents Robertson says include an 18-year phased takeover of Southeast Colorado, he explains the Army has indicated that expansion is off the table.
“There are no plans and no money to expand Pinon Canyon,” Brig. Gen. James Doty, acting senior commander at Fort Carson, told the Pueblo Chieftain Wednesday. “And that appears to be the situation for the foreseeable future. Certainly for the next few years.”
“But they say ‘right now,’” Robertson emphasizes. When Robertson tells people that the Army plans to expand the training site to 6.9 million acres, the initial response is “gee, they wouldn’t do that.” “That was our initial response,” he says. “But after finding all the documentation and supportive information, there’s no question in any of our minds that’s their goal.”
Currently, the situation is in a standoff. The Department of Defense has a practice of putting a moratorium on any land acquisition over 1,000 acres. However, Fort Carson officials secured a waiver from that moratorium several years ago. On the other hand, four years ago Congress banned any additional funding to expand the PCMS.
But with the waiver in hand, Army officials have, in essence, a permit to expand the training site any way they see fit, other than buying land. Robertson says area residents have been living under the shadow of doubt cast by all the uncertainties arising from that situation. “If we were to get that waiver removed and keep the ban in place, or make it a more permanent ban, then that would take that shadow away and I think the region would accrue more economic benefit. That’s what our push has been and will be.”
To read the Army’s latest environmental assessment and see other information related to PCMS, go to www.carson.army.mil. For more on the Pinon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition, go to www.pinoncanyon.com.