The Army has stepped up use of 369 square miles of shortgrass prairie in southeast Colorado over the past year, reaching a five-year high for number of days the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site hosted military units for training.
If training is carried out as planned in November and December at what's considered the premier drawing card for military in the Pikes Peak region, PCMS will have seen soldiers tramping and driving over its hills and gullies 290 days, or 79 percent, of the year. That's significantly more than the prior four-year average of 246 days, or 67 percent.
The PCMS last saw action for 290 days in 2010, the final year Congress voted to ban funding for expansion of the training range. In 2013, the Army gave up its expansion plans, subsequently proposing to intensify use of the existing 236,000 acres. Last May, the Army issued a Record of Decision to OK that use, which includes use of Stryker vehicles, electronic jamming systems, laser targeting, demolition, unmanned aerial and ground vehicle training, and airspace reclassification, among other things.
The most intense use this year took place from March through July when troops trained 140 of 153 days at PCMS. For two weeks in May and June, the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division and associated units convoyed to PCMS with 600 vehicles for an exercise called Operation Raider Focus, one of the biggest drills ever held there. The convoy required coordination with Colorado State Police and Colorado Department of Transportation for use of highways, including Interstate 25.
But most training is conducted by smaller units occupying portions of the land for one to five days. PCMS has 30 different training areas on 198,000 acres, Fort Carson media relations chief Daneta Johnson says via email.
Besides brigade training, which typically occurs once a year at PCMS (although none took place in 2014), various units that use the training grounds include Special Operations forces, Colorado National Guard, Air Force, Marine Corps and Air Force Reserve, Johnson says. In addition, the Colorado Department of Corrections and Las Animas County Sheriff's Department occasionally use the small-arms range and areas designated for live fire and urban training, she notes.
The only times in the past six years that PCMS has gotten an extended breather for rehab work were March 2010 and December 2012.
"Those two months were when we closed the ranges for extensive repairs of training areas to include structures," Johnson says. The training grounds, she says, are broken up into separate training areas "so we can continually manage the areas by closing some areas for repairs and still allow training in other areas."
Johnson adds that staff "continually" conduct minor repairs, and Carson is committed to preserving the natural environment and historic properties. "We strive to be good neighbors to our southern Colorado community," she says.
PCMS was so beaten up from a February 2013 drill that Carson sought and received a special allocation of $1.3 million to restore damaged vegetation. Since then, the post has acquired re-seeding equipment "to immediately repair any future land damage," Johnson says.
After the massive Stryker exercise in May and June, she says, officials undertook an immediate remediation plan and "are still assessing remediation efforts."
The continued and stepped-up use of PCMS doesn't surprise Jean Aguerre, who works with Not 1 More Acre!, a nonprofit group fighting to shut down the training ground.
Via email, she says the Army has failed to analyze and disclose topsoil loss, erosion, sedimentation, drought and other soil issues at PCMS. She also notes the property lies at the "headwinds" of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which was caused by plowing coupled with extreme drought.
"Current activities at the PCMS that include cutting of the soil surface to the point of destroying the crowns and roots of the shortgrasses are at least as destructive as the historic plowing of a site," Aguerre says, because shortgrasses have extensive root systems that, once destroyed, rarely recover.
Studies have shown, she notes, that recovery has never been documented — 85 years after the Dust Bowl — and mitigation or control of erosion and exotic plant invasions aren't possible in a sustainable way. Historic and future damage to shortgrass prairies are essentially irreversible and irreparable, Aguerre adds.
"Scientists get it," she says, "but Installation Management Command ... seems to miss the point, over and over and over."
To Tom Warren, given the fiscal and operational environments, there's not much hope of rescuing PCMS from unnecessary damage anytime soon.
Warren, a conservationist, oversaw Carson's Environmental Compliance and Management Directorate for 25 years until being reassigned in 2008 as deputy garrison commander. In that role, he oversaw all operational requirements, including the proposed PCMS expansion. He retired from his civilian job in 2011 and has remained active in local, national and international environmental causes since then.
"Whatever vestige of the then-nationally recognized proactive resource management program that historically existed at PCMS has more or less died," he says in an email.