Peter Slevin / Washington Post – 2007-11-18 23:13:29
WALSENBURG (November 18, 2007) — Herman Moltrer returned from Vietnam to be a cattle rancher on the broad short-grass prairie that stretches as far as the eye can see in southern Colorado. The rugged work earned him a living and a little something extra for his soul, but now he fears he may have to sell his land, at someone else’s price.
The US Army wants 418,000 acres of private ranch land, tripling the size of its Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site, a training site considered suitable — some would say essential — for preparing American soldiers to do battle in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The 1,000-square-mile facility would be 15 times the size of Washington.
Several-dozen ranchers and members of 15 county commissions that voted to oppose the project find themselves pitted against the Pentagon and Colorado business interests in a struggle over property rights, personal heritage and the contested priorities of national security.
Amid countless conversations around Colorado dinner tables about the potential for an economic boom or a government betrayal, experts on the environment, archaeology and paleontology are registering their worries that the land will suffer. Both houses of Congress voted against funding further work next year, one skirmish in a fight not nearly over.
Colorado may not be alone. Military planners foresee a need for 5 million more acres of training facilities by 2011.
In Pinon Canyon, where prehistoric dinosaur tracks lie near a surviving section of the Santa Fe Trail, the Army sees an opportunity when other training grounds are overtaxed by the demands of war. The move is also part of a long-term reorganization of the armed forces.
To Colorado business leaders, the expansion would help consolidate and enhance the state’s growing role as a military hub: home to Fort Carson, the Air Force Academy and the US Northern Command.
But the government’s appeal to patriotism when ranchers could be forced to sell property in their families for generations leaves many landowners cold. They remain skeptical of the claims of national security and frustrated by the lack of answers.
They are also infuriated by what they consider callousness among proponents of the expansion, such as the comment from state Sen. John Morse, a Colorado Springs Democrat, that “patriotism is about accepting your cost, even when it is disproportionate.”
“It’s rude. It ain’t right. It’s not American,” said Stan White, who could lose more than two-thirds of the 9,000 acres he ranches in Walsenburg. “We take our military and our country very seriously, but we’re up against something we can’t get ahold of. If they get this done, it’s a national disgrace.”
The land under discussion is an arid plateau that occupies a sparsely populated slice of Colorado near the New Mexico border. It lies alongside 235,000 acres acquired in the early 1980s. The open spaces provide rambling room for 67-ton tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles to practice maneuvers within a few hours of Fort Carson, home to a dozen Army units.
According to the Army, the training ground needs to grow for two reasons. The first is that training centers in Fort Irwin (San Bernardino County), and Fort Polk, La., are operating at capacity. The second is that Fort Carson was approved to receive two new brigades, totaling as many as 10,000 soldiers, in the 2005 base realignment process.
More soldiers means a need for more space nearby to train them, a problem that extends beyond Colorado.
In a September speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., said the Army believes it has a current deficit of 2 million acres needed for training, a figure expected to grow by 2011 to 5 million acres, or 7,812 square miles — an area about the size of New Jersey.
Allard pointed out that Colorado politicians and business leaders lobbied hard to lure the new troops and the military’s spending power. He opposed an amendment, which later passed, cutting off funds to study the Pinon Canyon expansion. He said the issue was too important “to the men and women who are fighting for our freedoms around the world.”
Brian Binn, president of the military affairs committee of the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, said the benefits to the state economy and national defense are clear. If the ranchers triumph and the training site is not created, he added, other states would be all too willing to accept the troops and the business.
“We have to look sometimes at what’s better for the national defense, the greater good,” Binn said. “It is a national security issue. The men and women of our armed services deserve nothing less.”
Bob Harris, a rancher forced to sell his land to the Army 25 years ago, said caustically, “I find the city people are really patriotic with our property.”
When word surfaced about the Army’s ambitions, the ranchers mobilized quickly, forming a coalition called Not One More Acre! They lobbied 15 county commissions to pass resolutions opposing the Pinon Canyon expansion and won votes in the Colorado legislature and Congress.
Assembling the maneuver site from reluctant landowners is not “the right thing to do for the future of our families or for the future of the country,” said Lon Roberson, the ranchers’ leader. “They can get the national defense taken care of with their own inventory of land.”
Tom Warren is a civilian responsible for Fort Carson’s environmental performance. He is also overseeing the early steps toward the proposed expansion. Discussing the intensity of the debate and the hard feelings, he said, “I’ve been here about 25 years — going on 20,000, it feels like.”
The Army needs the land and would be a good steward, Warren maintained. He said the project must go through preliminary stages of planning and approval on environmental, economic, social, military and political grounds. If Congress approves studies in the 2009 budget year, he said, it would still take years.
“There’s a great deal of change going on in the world, whether it be the global war on terrorism or the current deployments into Afghanistan and Iraq. There’s a change going on in the Army, a transformation,” Warren said. “We’re not talking about this war. We’re talking about whatever may come down the road in the future.”
Some landowners have told Colorado politicians that they are willing to sell. But it appears a large majority wants the project killed before it gains momentum.
“My family came here in 1872, so we’re not Johnnies-come-lately. My wife and I have a brand-new house, 2,000 square feet. I have 800 acres of good grass, 40 acres irrigated, 2 miles of pipeline,” said Abel Benevides, a 35-year Army veteran. “I was in the military. So was my sister, my aunt, my cousin. I’m doing my part. I salute the flag.”
Benevides, in fact, spent time as the command sergeant major at Pinon Canyon. He sees no good reason for expansion, feels deeply suspicious of the military’s approach and fears the worst. Many ranchers cite military maps that reflect talk of much greater expansion.
“They’re going to lie. They’re going to come up with a reason,” Benevides predicted. “That’s when I get my chains and tie myself to a lamppost. They’re going to have to take me off my land.”
There is a nearly universal feeling among the ranchers that the Pentagon would not pay top dollar and might resort to condemnation through eminent domain, a dirty phrase in these parts.
Kennie Gyurman, forced to sell 5,000 acres north of Trinidad in the 1980s, moved into a new house he built on the remains of a parcel assembled by his grandfather, uncle and father beginning in 1915. He and his wife intend to keep it out of federal hands.
“We’re a small band of landholders, and they think they can walk all over us,” Gyurman said. “It won’t be so easy for them this time.”
© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.
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