If there's one topic that can make both Pentagon officials and environmentalists stand at attention, it's open space.
Take Fort Carson, for example. Bordering Colorado Springs to the south, the Army base and its Pion Canyon Maneuver Site occupy more than 370,000 acres of rare shortgrass prairie.
An unusual alliance of Republican politicians, environmentalists and Army officials this year pledged to increase that territory by buying up development rights and creating a 50,000-acre buffer south of the base. The estimated federal price tag? $30 million.
"Overall Fort Carson is a demonstrably positive ecosystem," said Tom Warren, the base's director of environmental management. The base, he said, "supports a range of Bambi/ Thumper critters and humans."
It also supports a high-tech training field, increasingly threatened by encroaching development from the south. The base, the alliance says, needs protection from urban growth, and the buffer will be good for both the environment and the base's survival.
Bulletproofing the base
U.S. Senator Wayne Allard and U.S. Rep Joel Hefley have jointly supported a bill in Congress that would allow the partnership to protect the land south of Fort Carson and authorize the Pentagon $30 million to pay for it. Allard is currently in negotiations to have the bill added to the Pentagon's annual Defense Authorization Act.
Sustaining the base's ability to function without disturbance from growth pressures "ensures that Fort Carson can continue its training mission," said Allard spokeswoman Angela de Rocha. This could help protect the base from being cut in the latest round of closings this year. De Rocha said, "Allard does not think Fort Carson is a candidate for base closure."
Even if that's the case, "we'd like to make Fort Carson as bulletproof as possible [to base closure]," said El Paso County Commissioner Dennis Hisey, who joined in a unanimous commission resolution supporting the buffer bill.
Saved from bulldozers
The Nature Conservancy, the group partnering with the base to arrange the purchase of development rights, also hopes to prevent the worst.
The land south of Fort Carson is an "excellent example of shortgrass prairie, with some plants you can't find anywhere else," said Brian McPeek, the Nature Conservancy's associate director for Colorado. He said he hopes this rare environment can be saved from bulldozers.
As military bases across the nation have increasingly become wildlife oases, McPeek's organization has increasingly partnered with the Pentagon. The first success story came in Fort Bragg, N.C., where the Nature Conservancy has helped preserve 9,100 acres since 2000 -- and in doing so has helped both the base and its resident endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. Congress specifically authorized the Defense Department to seek these special partnerships in 2002.
Despite the common interest in creating land barriers, environmentalists and the Pentagon don't always see eye to eye. Many environmentalists have criticized continual efforts by Bush administration officials to exempt military bases from aspects of national environmental laws such as Endangered Species Act. They also point to the fact that military bases, after they close, are often little more than toxic slag heaps.
The bases around Colorado Springs are probably a "mixed blessing," said local Sierra Club activist John Stansfield, mentioning the impact of the firing range and large vehicles at Fort Carson. But they "provide some pretty substantial wildlife habitat," he said. And when it comes to controlling growth, he said they definitely make a difference. "The bases are like the fingers wrapped around the toothpaste tube."
-- Dan Wilcock
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