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Army stages one of its biggest drills yet at Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site 

Over hill, over dale

It only takes a very mild breeze sweeping across the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site to whip up dirt from a barren expanse that used to be blanketed with native short grasses. Decades of pounding from tanks and other heavy vehicles during military training on those 236,000 southeastern Colorado acres has wrecked the delicate ecosystem, according to long-time area residents.

Now, yet another exercise — one of the biggest ever — has descended on PCMS. Starting April 18 and continuing until May 6, nearly 6,000 soldiers from four Army posts are grinding down the once healthy grasslands in 1,800 vehicles, while 30 helicopters are buzzing overhead. "The training at PCMS is to prepare soldiers for any possible mission should the unit be called to support contingencies around the globe," Fort Carson says in a statement.

But for Jean Aguerre and MaryEllen White, both of whom have roots in ranches on PCMS' periphery, the exercise represents another death knell for land that has yet to fully recover from the 1930s Dust Bowl.

"I watched two weeks ago when it was just this curtain of dust that rolls over Piñon Canyon and moves across the prairie. I could feel the dust on my teeth," Aguerre says. And while this time of year usually brings migrating birds and others teeming with song, she heard but one bird during her recent visit. "Heart-wrenching," she says.

click to enlarge Tracks from military training crisscross the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site. - COURTESY JEAN AGUERRE
  • Courtesy Jean Aguerre
  • Tracks from military training crisscross the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site.

The Army purchased the PCMS property in 1983, using eminent domain to capture much of the land from farmers and ranchers who weren't willing to sell. That sowed distrust from the beginning, Aguerre and others say.

In 2003, the military proposed to expand the site by nearly 7 million acres, further angering residents who later gained traction with conservationists and politicians, ultimately forcing the Army to withdraw its plans in 2013.

Since then, the Army, notably Fort Carson, has intensified its use of PCMS for drills. In 2015, drills were conducted at PCMS 290 days, or 79 percent, of the year.

The Army hasn't been the best steward, observers say, at times running afoul of state laws for historic preservation of Indian cultural artifacts and not restoring the land after damaging drills. Army officials, though, have repeatedly asserted they're committed to good stewardship.

But this latest exercise might suggest otherwise. Carson reports that Operation Raider Focus includes 5,000 soldiers from the Mountain Post's 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Sustainment Brigades and other Fort Carson units. Another 750 came from Fort Sill, Oklahoma; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; and Fort Hood, Texas.

"During the exercise, crews will train against each other using different scenarios to build team cohesion and ensure task proficiency," Carson representatives said in a release.

The Army and Air Force will use about 1,500 military vehicles, among them 300 Stryker fighting vehicles, and 30 helicopters, including Black Hawks, Apaches and Chinooks during day and night blank-fire exercises. "Many" vehicles, the Army says, convoyed to the training area and will return to Fort Carson the same way. Some are being transported by rail.

Asked about whether the training avoids off-limits areas of cultural value and recovering plant life damaged from prior drills, the Army noted that 685 tactical vehicles are equipped with computer systems with "resource protection map[s]."

"The system with the background maps is intended to allow Soldiers to track friendly and hostile force movements while ensuring archaeological site protection and safety during the exercise," the statement said.

The post added that it's "committed to balancing our training mission with protecting and preserving PCMS' natural environment and historical properties." It noted environmental personnel assist in planning training, construction and other undertakings that could affect PCMS. "All cultural and environmental sites will be marked with awareness signs which will be placed along main supply routes and tank trails to provide an additional level of awareness to vehicle drivers, commanders and crews," Carson said.

The post said it will go so far as to post stakes in some areas and position boulders around others that require protection from vehicle traffic, are culturally sensitive or have been reseeded.

The post also said it balances training with "respecting our neighbors" by minimizing noise, regulating flights' altitude and avoiding populated areas. "We will continue to listen to our community and work through any noise issues that may arise," Carson's statement said.

After the exercise, Carson said remediation work would begin immediately with an assessment and reseeding, if necessary, using active duty personnel.

click to enlarge Heavy Army vehicles leave deep trenches behind. - COURTESY JEAN AGUERRE
  • Courtesy Jean Aguerre
  • Heavy Army vehicles leave deep trenches behind.

But Aguerre has heard it all before and remains skeptical. She fought the Army for more than a decade over damage at PCMS, via a resistance group calling itself Not 1 More Acre! The group and others helped beat back the PCMS expansion effort.

She continues to attend community meetings and observe what's happening at PCMS. For at least 15 years, she says, the area has been under siege by mechanized maneuvers, with training intensifying in the last five years after the Army abandoned the expansion.

"They just ripped the hell out of it with no mitigation," she says of past exercises. "Even with their stupid little scenario — 'We're gonna be there with our two seeding trucks.' For what? It doesn't do any good. Reseeding native short grass prairie doesn't work. The seed mixes they're using ... after 20 years those root systems are only an inch or two deep, if they've survived."

Native grasses, she says, have root systems extending 12 to 18 inches into the ground. "It takes a really, really long time for the soils to restore themselves," she says. "Eighty-five years later, after the Dust Bowl, with managed grazing, we are only now reaching stability. They [grasses] can't just keep being torn up while it's happening."

Add to that a drought spanning several years, and Aguerre paints a picture of crisis.

"There could be a catastrophic dust event that has the potential of wiping out the southern Great Plains," she notes. "Once it rolls off Piñon Canyon and gains momentum, there will be no stopping it."

Part of Aguerre's arsenal is the Freedom of Information Act, and she's used it plenty of times to find out about exercises and their impacts. Most recently, she filed a FOIA request in December for what types of pesticides and insecticides are being used.

Aguerre also has concern for wildlife disrupted by the drills and says she's had a hard time getting the government to disclose reports on monitoring and impact. "It totally wrecks wildlife, all kinds of species," she says. "Think if you're a burrowing owl making your nest in a prairie dog hole, and a tank comes along and puts you 36 inches into the ground."

click to enlarge A container marked as containing pesticides was found at the site. - COURTESY JEAN AQUERRE
  • Courtesy Jean Aquerre
  • A container marked as containing pesticides was found at the site.

White's family ranch, which they've owned since 1937 when she was 1 year old, lies about 30 miles west of PCMS. She shares Aguerre's concerns and has some of her own.

In 2010, the Air Force declared southern Colorado and northern New Mexico as a flyway for pilot training, bringing a new kind of threat via contrails (a trail of condensed water left by planes, visible as a white line in the sky), White says.

"It's ruining our land," she claims. "Land cannot produce vegetables with oil and fuel spewing out of the sky. We're out there all day fixing fence, and they're going over[head], and pretty soon, you taste it on your lips and you can smell it, and it burns your eyes. It's been years of filth coming from planes to the ground."

Combine air pollution with overuse of the land, White says, and it's been an environmental disaster.

"When they have maneuvers out there, you can't see Fishers Peak," she says of a 9,633-foot mountain southeast of Trinidad. "There are times when you can barely see the hogback. You look east and it's just a big gray, brown fog. It's dust and pollution. It looks like LA. It's just a thick wall."

The land itself, she reports, has been stripped of piñon and cedar trees in many places. "It's just bare," she says. "There's nothing there but dirt, and they're telling me, 'We reseed and it will recover.' No it won't recover."

Speaking of which, Carson spokesperson Daneta Johnson says Raider Focus is the only planned brigade-level training this fiscal year at PCMS, though the post hasn't received a schedule for the fiscal year that begins October 1. But she adds, "There will be small unit training throughout the remainder of the fiscal year," which includes about two months of planned drills between now and Sept. 30.

Aguerre is only semi-amused that Carson plans an April 21 media and community day at PCMS amid the large drill currently underway. The blitz, she notes, will take place the day before Earth Day.

  • Over hill, over dale

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