Military planners at Fort Carson envision transforming Pion Canyon Maneuver Site into a world-class training area, where soldiers would prepare for conflicts ranging from the fight against terrorism to a major ground war with China.
Fort Carson's freedom of information official deleted specific acreage figures from the 40-page "Land Use Requirements Study," citing legal reasons, but Army spokeswoman Karen Edge says the base hopes to grow its maneuver site by nearly 200 percent.
The study, created 16 months ago, details Fort Carson's aspiration to grow Pion Canyon into a site fit to host extensive combat training.
"Leaders must command and control their units over wider and more diverse areas in an environment that replicates as close as possible actual battlefield conditions," Army planners wrote in the April 12, 2005 document, created to justify to Pentagon reviewers reasons to expand.
The Army's plans for enlarging the 23-year-old, 235,000-acre southeastern Colorado training site have for months drawn passionate opposition. Several towns, dozens of ranches, a recreational grassland, historic places, dinosaur fossils and sections of rivers and highways all lay within the swath of land the Army is eyeing.
The Independent obtained the document, called a "white paper" by one base official, via a freedom of information request. It states the current small-arms firing ranges aren't enough and that Fort Carson needs more land for farther-reaching, more deadly weapons and large-scale maneuvers to include tanks, aircraft and groups of soldiers.
"When these factors are combined with a fleeting window of opportunity to acquire large tracts of training land at very competitive prices, it becomes obvious that the Army must move quickly on this acquisition effort," the document states.
Edge gives an acquisition goal of 418,577 acres a number driven as much by perceived needs as by funds available to buy land from "willing sellers."
She says that the base would not seek more than that amount, yet is unwilling to rule out the possibility the site would need to be expanded again in the future.
An Army map leaked to the public earlier this year showed the site growing by millions of acres, hitting the Kansas border in the east and the New Mexico and Oklahoma borders in the south. Fort Carson denies that map is valid, but has not been able to cull widespread fear that long-term plans for the region are being kept secret.
The staunchly opposed Colorado Cattlemen's Association estimates that the Army expansion would cost ranching $12 million annually and harm innumerable businesses that depend on ranching, such as veterinary offices and feed vendors.
Earlier this month, the Las Animas City Council unanimously issued a resolution "adamantly" opposing the expansion, citing fears that tourism, historic and scientific sites, transportation and the regional economy would all suffer.
"We looked at the pros and cons, and found more cons," says City Councilman Michael Moreno.
The Fort Carson document justifies expansion based on the nation's protracted "global" war on terror and the Army's need to be ready should a large-scale conflict emerge.
"China poses the likely major foreseeable conventional threat to US forces," the document states. "Terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and regional competitors like North Korea, Iran, Syria, failing states elsewhere in the Middle East and in Central Asia represent the most serious threat to US interests around the globe and at home. Conflict with these regional competitors could begin as a major regional contingency and escalate rapidly into a major theater of war."
Bones and prints
Other issues driving Fort Carson's aspirations for vast tracts of land are environmental.
Rising numbers of troops coming to Fort Carson, following base closures elsewhere, will train nearly year-round, including seasons when plant life is susceptible to damage. This concern requires resting roughly half the land after a training exercise so that it can recover from damage; troops would continue to train on the other half.
"This is a critical point to understand because it drives our final acreage calculation," the document states. "In order for Fort Carson to manage the training lands in a sustainable manner, it is necessary to have twice the maneuver land requirement ..."
Fort Carson also proposes a conservation area in the Purgatoire River basin to "offset the environmental impacts of this project."
The region, particularly Picket Wire Canyon in Comanche National Grassland, contains historical treasures, including ancient Indian rock drawings, historic buildings and important sites of dinosaur footprints and ongoing fossil excavations.
A specific conservation group appears slated to oversee the area where there would be "limited access ... for the public."
"This will ensure the preservation of high value archaeological, cultural and natural resources in this area," the document states. The Army has withheld the group's name.
Moreno worries that hikers and the guided vehicle tours currently allowed by the U.S. Forest Service would end. He says he doesn't trust the Army's plans for the region nor its desire to protect the Purgatoire basin.
"They could close it off in an instant," he says.