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Piñon Canyon: Staying vigilant 

Farmers and ranchers around Piñon Canyon follow the U.S. Congress almost as closely as the weather.

"They watch every bill that comes through and read them with a fine-toothed comb," says Mack Louden, a Las Animas County commissioner. So it didn't take long for someone to discover last week that a subcommittee had approved the 2012 military construction bill without renewing the four-year-old funding ban on expanding the military's Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site.

For a few days, ranchers worried that the Army would be able to acquire property to enlarge the 235,800-acre training ground used by Fort Carson. Louden, whose family settled in Las Animas County 99 years ago, was in panic mode on Monday: "It was one of those things I don't know what happened. There's a lot of people who are really upset, a lot of phone calls going into Congressman [Scott] Tipton's office."

As it turned out, the bill didn't contain the ban because Tipton, unlike his Democratic predecessor John Salazar, isn't a member of the subcommittee or the full House Appropriations Committee. But early this week, the Republican persuaded a colleague on the committee to attach the ban onto the bill, and on Tuesday, the bill passed on a voice vote. It now heads for the full House.

"We're back on track!! Next stop..... really long term (permanent) ban!!" the Piñon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition, comprising hundreds of area landowners, said in a press statement Tuesday.

You'd think that since the Army's five-year plan doesn't include expanding PCMS, tensions might not be so high. But a lot of factors have contributed to unease, including landowners' dicey history with Fort Carson, and knowledge that the post expects more soldiers and a new combat aviation brigade in coming years.

And now, you could add the lack of timely resolution to the Army's most egregious recent breach at Piñon Canyon.

Last year, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team damaged 39 historic sites with its mechanized force — the first to train there in about eight years. State historic preservation officials should have been notified in advance of the training but weren't, a violation of federal historic preservation laws. Carson blamed the miscue on changes in personnel.

"You'd be appalled at what happened," Louden says. "There are ruts that were over my knees, 21/2 feet deep." He adds that using heavy armored vehicles to climb hills can cause breaks in the soil that then wash out. "If you get a place where the wind blows the dust, all it has to do is put an eighth inch of dust over the grass and it kills the grass."

Yet nearly a year later, state officials and Carson authorities still haven't finalized guidelines for avoiding or protecting historic and cultural assets in the future.

"We're hopeful to have an agreement secured by this summer," Colorado Historical Society spokeswoman Rebecca Laurie says in a voicemail statement. "That agreement would address actions going forward on how to minimize damage to historic resources."

Asked about the talks, Fort Carson issued a written statement, which included the following: "Our current operational focus is to add field protective measures such as marking/fencing to some of the cultural sites located in prime maneuver training areas. We are at the initial stages of discussions of a more comprehensive and lasting consultation agreement to protect cultural resources from damage due to training exercises in the future instead of consulting for every individual training event."

zubeck@csindy.com

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