Ranchers remain wary of Army's Piñon Canyon plans
By Tom Roeder | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: March 31, 2014
KIM - The dust flies through the drought-stricken grasslands of southeast Colorado.
As the wind rips across the barren plains, ranchers eat breakfast at the Kim Outpost store and talk about the tough winter that brought too much cold and snow.
After a four-month break from the topic, they talk about the Army, the biggest landholder in this sparsely populated region. The Army plans to ramp up training at the 235,000-acre Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site.
"In these parts, you're always looking on the ground for a rattlesnake," Frank Sumpter said.
The figurative rattler is the Army's longtime desire to expand the training area, which made for a decade of hard feelings before the Pentagon renounced Piñon expansion plans in November.
The Army says it is working for a permanent peace with ranchers, with outreach initiatives and a pledge of transparency.
"There has been a lot of dialogue between Fort Carson and our good neighbors in southeastern Colorado," said Dee McNutt, the post's public affairs chief.
The Army will spend the next 18 months preparing an environmental impact statement on the new training and will listen to concerned neighbors at meetings through the region.
But a decade of mistrust casts a long shadow.
"I'd just as soon not think about them," said rancher Jack Pearce, a lifelong resident of the region, as he set his empty cup on a table.
The Outpost is where a revolt began 10 years ago, pitting ranchers against the Army's now-defunct plans for a massive expansion at Pi?n Canyon. The insurgency gained steam over thousands of cups of coffee inside this eclectic store - one of two businesses in this town.
Last November, the Pi?n Canyon Opposition Coalition, headed by Outpost owner Lon Robertson, won what appeared to be its final battle.
The Pentagon revoked its permission for the Army to seek more land, and Congress approved roadblocks that would stall future bids for more acreage at Pi?n.
As they sell off their herds to weather the drought, the ranchers are pondering another tussle with the Army. This time the fight would be about the environmental impacts of training with new combat vehicles, helicopters and drones.
"If they're doing something that makes sense, that would be a first," Robertson said.
At Fort Carson's Department of Public Works, leaders say the new impact statement is a matter of common sense. After a number of legal tangles, the service is still working off a 30-year-old document that has dictated how units can train at the site since it opened in 1983.
The impact statement was written long before the Army acquired drones or the eight-wheeled Stryker combat vehicles Fort Carson's 1st Brigade Combat Team is beginning to use.
"Over time, the Army continues to look at new tactics and equipment fielding," said Hal Alguire, the post's director of public works.
The Army hasn't given clear definition to what a new impact statement will look like. Leaders say a series of public meetings is planned before they produce a draft statement, due by year's end.
Fort Carson officials say a top goal is creating a bubble of restricted air space above Pi?n Canyon that would forbid civilian planes below the altitude of 10,000 feet. That would allow Army brigades to use 320-pound Shadow unarmed reconnaissance drones. The drone is a key tool the Army began using overseas a decade ago that allows commanders to spot enemies at long distances and track their movements.
The airspace also would allow more training for a new 2,800-soldier aviation brigade, which is scheduled to reach full strength at Fort Carson this year.
Army leaders also want federal OK to use jamming gear that troops overseas use to counter roadside bombs.
The Army's requests come as the service braces for post-war changes and a smaller budget. From a peak of 570,000 soldiers in 2011, the Army is cutting 120,000 troops from its roster after 13 years of combat.
In another money-saving move, Fort Carson leaders want cheaper training opportunities closer to home rather than sending the post's 24,500 soldiers to Armywide training centers in California or Louisana.
Piñon Canyon, little-used during the past decade, will see more troops, tanks, aircraft and Humvees in the future, leaders predict. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq required troops to learn counterinsurgency tactics that don't require a huge space such as Pi?n Canyon.
Now, though, soldiers will train for larger engagements that could require commanders to maneuver 5,000-soldier brigades to combat enemy armies.
Carson officials say Pi?n Canyon is a great place to train for big battles, with its mix of terrain including high desert, undulating valleys and the dramatic canyonlands along the Purgatoire River.
"It's complicated and tough and you have to train like you fight. And if you don't do it, someone will get hurt," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Ed Anderson, who heads the state-sponsored Colorado National Defense Support Council.
A desire for more realistic training drove the Army to seek more land in Las Animas County.
In 2004, the expansion move came as a surprise to ranchers - especially an early Army document that called for acquiring an additional 418,577 acres for training, a request that was later trimmed to 100,000 acres.
Weathered "Not For Sale to the U.S. Army" signs still hang from twisted juniper fence posts along Colorado 160 from Kim to Trinidad.
Now, the Army says it has changed its ways, seeking to work with locals to smooth over trouble and better use the land it owns.
Colorado's Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, who brokered the November peace deal, hopes the old battle won't affect debate of the new environmental review.
"I believe there are ways to balance training requirements and concerns of the southern Colorado community," Udall said.
The Army says it will mitigate training impacts and work with the community to craft a plan that satisfies soldiers and ranchers.
"Obviously, we will mitigate anything we find," Fort Carson's Alguire said.
Udall is dangling the carrot of permanently stationed troops at Piñon Canon and locally sourced contracting.
"The environmental impact statement announcement is a sign that the Army is listening to the concerns of southern Coloradans," Udall said. "I really want to encourage local residents to participate in upcoming meetings."
Getting an environmental impact accord could be key to the future of the Army in Colorado.
Congress is considering a Pentagon request for a new round of base closures in 2017. The ability to train troops is a key factor in whether military bases will remain open.
"One thing we don't want to do is communicate to those decision-makers in the Pentagon that once again, Colorado is pushing back against Army training," Anderson said.
Anderson and other military boosters are pushing bills before the state General Assembly that would pay for an economic impact survey of the military in Colorado and boost state lobbying efforts to grow the military's presence here.
"If the Army is unable to exercise all of its systems in its training, that is not good," Anderson said.
At the Outpost, ranchers said they're willing to listen to the Army's training needs.
Pearce served as an Army draftee in the 1950s and says he understands what Piñon Canyon could mean for soldiers.
"Yeah, they need to train," he said. "Those guys have to learn how to maneuver."
Robertson, though, said the fear caused by the Army's now-dead expansion plans isn't gone.
"Every time a helicopter flies over, it's like taking a scab off of an old wound."