This Land is My Land

Active ImageRanchers in Southeast Colorado continue fighting to prevent the U.S. Army from taking their land.

Even after a long, steady gaze, the scenery in Southeastern Colorado doesn’t have much to offer. Compared to the majestic mountain peaks found farther west and north, this area of the state appears to be a whole lot of nothing, with flat, dry and rugged expanses stretching for hundreds of lonely miles.

But looks can be deceiving. This shortgrass region is alive with unique wildlife, plant species, red canyons, rivers and cattle ranches that have thrived for more than a century. By the same token, while these wide-open expanses project a quiet, calm setting, they are in reality the site of a heated and bitter fight over property rights between local ranchers and the U.S. Army.

It began in 2005, when an Army map detailing plans to expand the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site was revealed. The maneuver site, located between Trinidad and La Junta, is a training ground used by troops stationed at Fort Carson, 100 miles to the north, near Colorado Springs. At 235,896 acres, it is the second-largest training site for the Department of Defense. Activities include two major military exercises a year, each consisting of a month of intense maneuvers involving 5,000 troops, 300 heavy-tracked vehicles and 400 wheeled vehicles.

When the Army’s map showed plans to acquire an additional 418,000 acres, with the potential for expanding the site to more than 2 million acres, local landowners were outraged and began organizing against the expansion.

Much of the proposed area is private property, and residents remember all too well how the original maneuver site was acquired—the federal government seized about half of it by condemning it and relocating 11 landowners. The community worried that the Army might again utilize eminent domain to acquire land this time.

“Because of the map, the whole community started trying to figure out how to oppose the expansion, and a coalition of ranchers was formed,” says Grady Grissom, whose ranch lies within the Army’s proposed map. “That has been the backbone of the opposition.”

Soon, local townspeople, businesses and schools joined the cause. Two groups, the Piñon Canyon Opposition Coalition and Not 1 More Acre!, were formed. Politicians got involved, and last year Southeastern Colorado landowners won several victories at the legislative level.

Colorado State Representative Wes McKinley authored House Bill 1069, which withdraws the state’s consent to the federal government for acquiring lands via eminent domain and condemnation for the purpose of military training and activities. Governor Bill Ritter signed the bill into law last June.

Shortly thereafter, in the U.S. House of Representatives, Representatives Marilyn Musgrave and John Salazar pushed an amendment to the military spending bill. It prevented the Army from spending any funds toward the expansion of Piñon Canyon during fiscal year 2008, and the bill passed with a vote of 383–34. In September, Senator Ken Salazar helped pass the amendment in the Senate, 47–45, and President Bush signed the bill in December.

For all the legislative triumphs of 2007, affected ranchers still find it difficult to bask in glory. For one, the amendment will hold the Army in check for only one year. Secondly, Senators Salazar and Wayne Allard sponsored a provision requiring the Army to use existing funds to justify expansion. The provision rankled many ranchers, who viewed it as a window of opportunity for the Army. The fact that Allard and Salazar both come from agricultural backgrounds made the move even more confusing to residents.

However, Steve Wymer, a spokesman for Allard, says the senator is by no means abandoning his constituency.

“The senator is balancing two very important things,” Wymer says. “He supports the military and their need for more training space. If we can expand more space for them to train, that’s a good thing. It could bring more troops here, which does help the economy and a lot of other things.

“But on the other hand, he’s one of the most ardent defenders of private property rights and ranching and farming. He’s a veterinarian and grew up on a ranch. I think he epitomizes a Western, conservative, agriculturally based Senator.

“He has two core principles to consider, so he’s tried to proceed in a way that balances those issues.”

That need for balance doesn’t make sense to ranchers and landowners, who don’t see a legitimate reason for the expansion. The Department of Defense reportedly already owns more than 25 million acres on over 425 military installations throughout the United States.

But the Army insists that it needs more space for training. It plans to increase the number of soldiers stationed at Fort Carson, plus it says that technological advances in weaponry make larger training sites necessary.

“Unmanned aircraft systems, non-line-of-sight cannons, patriot missiles and a lot of other advancements have taken place,” says Dave Foster of Army Public Affairs. “With some of these weapons, you’re talking about firing something downrange 20 miles or farther. You want to be able to train in that scenario.

“We want to put our young soldiers in a situation where we can train them the best we can. There’s nothing more important than their safety. So, the bottom line is we need a lot more land to be able to do that.”

Foster added that the Army is “pursuing the most comprehensive transformation of its forces since the early years of World War II.” During the next decade, it expects significant gains in its number of Active Component soldiers, Army National Guard soldiers and Army Reserve soldiers. That growth has led the Army to estimate a 2-million-acre shortfall for necessary training, a number that will grow to 4.5 million acres by 2015.

But why the Army has targeted Piñon Canyon is the question many residents have posed. The proximity to Fort Carson and a supposed similarity between Southeast Colorado’s terrain and parts of the Middle East are two reasons for expansion plans. But it goes beyond that.

“Why do they need to take private land in order to accomplish that training, when they already own 25 million acres?” Grissom asks. “I think the answer is largely convenience. Fort Carson is a popular place. But does convenience trump private-property rights?”

Foster said Piñon Canyon is, in fact, attractive because of its convenience.

“If we take the Brigade Combat Team [stationed at Fort Carson] and send it to someplace like Fort Irwin, California, they’re away from home a lot more,” Foster says. “Whereas, if they have the opportunity to [train] at Piñon Canyon, they’re only about an hour and a half down the road, and closer to their families. And something that’s extremely important to the Army is the quality of life for our soldiers and their families.”

But when it comes to neighbors, some argue that the Army’s emphasis on quality of life greatly diminishes.

“The Army has a tendency to be a bully,” Wymer says. “And it doesn’t have a very good track record sometimes of being a good neighbor. They have promised in the past, ‘We won’t use eminent domain,’ and they wound up using it. So, those kinds of things create a lot of tension and a lot of doubt. And Sen. Allard is very sensitive to that.”

Local ranchers point to a number of promises the Army has broken since it established the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site in 1983.

“They took 240,000 acres out of the tax base for schools,” Grissom says. “The military doesn’t pay property taxes. And then they claimed that there’d be new jobs created, and none of that has come to pass. They said they’d never use live fire, but they do use live fire now. So, we feel like if they get these 400,000 acres, it’s just a matter of time before they’ll expand it even more.”

The Army has stated that the expansion would have a $500 million benefit to the Pikes Peak area, the region that encompasses Fort Carson and Colorado Springs. That’s good news to the 600,000 people living in the area, but residents farther south don’t expect to see a dime.

“That’s why Sen. Salazar and Sen. Allard have talked about locating a mechanic shop down there,” Wymer says. “Some of these towns are real small, and 30 to 40 good, high-paying civilian jobs working for the military could be really huge.”

One issue uncharacteristically working in ranchers’ favor is environmental considerations. The proposed expansion area includes parts of the Comanche National Grassland, the historic Santa Fe Trail, pristine Indian sites and dinosaur footprints. Last summer, rancher Steve Wooten worked with neighbors to allow surveyors onto their land to make ecological, biological and historic assessments of the region. Scientists were thrilled to conduct the studies.

“I talked to a lot of them, and they said they were astounded at the abundance of the rare species they found on private land,” Grissom says. “Their explanation was that the management of the private land is why those species are so abundant. By the time they left, they were pretty much on our bandwagon.”

The Army is scheduled to submit its report to Congress later this summer, justifying expansion of the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site from an environmental, economic and property-rights standpoint. And legislators will again vote on whether the Army should receive any funding for the project.

Meanwhile, ranchers hope for the best while property values drop and the local economy suffers. For example, the Rancher’s Supply in La Junta sold only 10,000 pounds of t-posts last spring, compared to the usual 100,000 pounds.

“People are afraid to put money into their land, thinking that if it gets condemned, they’re not going to get that back,” Grissom says. “I have a set of corrals that need three or four thousand dollars put into them. I worked on them a little, but the whole time, in the back of my mind, I thought, ‘Am I doing this for the Army? Are they going to come in with a bulldozer and push it all in a hole?’ ”

Allard hopes to find a solution that works for both groups.

“He’s really worked hard to get both parties to not be so entrenched,” Wymer says.

“We want it to be a win-win situation,” Foster says. “We understand the sensitivities the ranchers and other folks have. So, is there a way that we can work together with the community so we can fulfill our mission of protecting them, and do it in a manner that’s comfortable to them?”

Grissom, like many other ranchers, finds little comfort in the situation.

“If the army gets funding, this expansion will go forward,” Grissom says. “And people will be forced to sell their ranches. The generational [ranching] families have an obvious attachment to where they live. Their grandparents are buried here. It’s their whole life.

“At the state legislature, when ranchers testified in front of the senate committees, there were guys crying. We had legislators come down and do tours, and you’d see 75-year-old ranchers get tears in their eyes talking about losing their land. It is just a heart-wrenching, emotional issue.”


Ross Hecox is a Western Horseman senior editor. Send comments on this story to edit@westernhorseman.com.