Under endless turquoise skies filled with silver clouds, Doug Thompson's pickup truck skates and bounds along a muddy dirt road in Comanche National Grassland, advancing toward a little-known treasure trove.
He steers the truck into steep, unforgiving lands that are defended by a lonely locked U.S. Army gate. Because he is a U.S. Forest Service tour guide, Thompson, armed with the keys, has permission to advance.
"We have to cross through a part of Army land to get there," he explains. "This is the only way into the canyons by vehicle."
The only other way to the cactus-filled canyons is by foot, mountain bike or horse, on a 10-mile round-trip trail that dodges the military training ground the gate protects: Fort Carson's Pion Canyon Maneuver Site.
A short drive later, we pass through another gate. Now back on Forest Service land, the truck hits Picket Wire Canyon. Its bounty is highlighted by one of the world's premier dinosaur footprint sites.
The canyon's walls glow with primitive drawings created hundreds of years ago by a people who appear to have revered the sun and the crooked, pea-green Purgatoire River, which splashes alongside the footprints. Bear, big cats, coyotes, deer, antelope, tortoises, chameleons, rattlesnakes and strange, colorful insects, some rare for Colorado, all thrive here.
On occasion, Thompson has glimpsed bald eagles, "threatened," and therefore protected, birds, which probably are attracted by the abundance of cotton-tailed rabbits.
The veteran Navy man has also seen Thunderbolts not lightning, but A-10 jetfighters, soaring through the canyon on their way to war games at the neighboring maneuver site.
The Army training ground, about half the size of Rhode Island, is too small, Fort Carson officials have said in recent months. Soldiers, immersed in the global war on terror, drive faster tanks and fire stronger cannons, and need wider landscapes in which to train.
The surrounding canyons and cattle ranches would be ideal space, the Army says, meaning that Picket Wire Canyon, along with hundreds of thousands of acres of connected federal and private land, including countless ranches and entire small towns, could be engulfed in a massive Army expansion. Opponents say it could be one of the military's boldest land grabs.
"I can't really speak about it," Thompson says, citing his need to be neutral as a federal employee. "All I can say is that it was a surprise to us. The Forest Service didn't see this coming at all."
(See map at bottom of article)
When Pion Canyon Maneuver Site, nestled deep in cattle country about two dozen miles south of La Junta, opened in 1983, an Army colonel promised there would be no live ammunition. However, in 2003, Fort Carson won the right to use firing ranges, after assessments concluded there would be no adverse impact on the environment. The site now harbors several small-arms shooting ranges, including a mock Iraqi village.
The change upset watchdogs like Bill Sulzman, a Colorado Springs peace activist. He says that now, if Fort Carson expands, it will destroy the agricultural way of life in southeastern Colorado and prevent the public from enjoying rare historical sites.
"If they broke their promise about the shooting ranges, how can you trust anything they say now?" he asks.
Tom Warren, Fort Carson's director of environmental compliance and management, says the Army couldn't predict that its needs would change.
"Along came 9/11," he says.
Fort Carson contends it needs more training space because its troop levels will soon increase to 24,000 a 66 percent increase as the result of recent base closures elsewhere, and because there is a backlog at the Army's premier training site, the National Training Center at Fort Irwin in California's Mojave Desert.
The Army also needs a place to fire long-range cannons.
The Army has not released any proposal detailing the expansion.
But Warren says the Defense Department has for more than a year worked to determine whether southeast Colorado is a good place to expand. High-ranking defense officials at the Pentagon will make the decision based on a Fort Carson "white paper" that outlines perceived future training needs.
Warren says he cannot release the white paper. Specific Army plans will only become public if the Defense Department deems it necessary to expand, he says. And if the Army favors expansion, the public will then be allowed to comment in a process that would require the support of Congress.
The lack of particulars to date has frustrated Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., whose office says it is impossible to take a position for or against expansion.
"We don't know what we're really dealing with until we see a plan," says Salazar spokesman Cody Wertz.
Salazar is backing legislation by Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., that calls on the Army to be more "transparent" about its intentions in the region.
Controversial leaked maps show the Pion Canyon Maneuver Site growing into the largest training ground in the nation. It would dwarf the 350,000-acre National Training Center, even if the NTC soon grows by 150,000 acres, as expected.
Maps show Pion Canyon Maneuver Site, which is now 235,000 acres, growing by as many as 2.5 million acres. (Editor's note: Clarification made to previous sentence on Sept. 1, 2008.)
One map shows the site reaching south and east, to the New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas state lines. That's a chunk of land four times the size of Rhode Island.
Warren, who acknowledges the undated map emanated from the Army, dismisses it as the "wild-eyed idea" of unnamed commanders brashly outlining future Army interests.
But he says the Army might be eyeing a "goose egg"-shaped area of about 1 million acres that encircles Pion Canyon Maneuver Site. That would swallow Picket Wire Canyon, expanses of the Purgatoire and Apishapa rivers, parcels of the Comanche National Grassland, dozens upon dozens of large cattle ranches, stretches of several highways and a handful of towns, including Thatcher, Hoehne, Trinchera and Branson.
The towns harbor small populations, and Warren says the Army prefers to buy land from willing sellers.
The enormity of the proposal and the lack of detail associated with it are causing a ruckus in southeast Colorado, says Jim Montoya, a commissioner in Las Animas County, home to 15,000 people and several towns that could be consumed by Fort Carson expansion.
"The Army hasn't come clean with what they're planning," he says, adding that if what is pictured on any of the maps comes to fruition, it could decimate southeastern Colorado's economy. Many of the cattle ranches upon which the region depend would be eliminated.
"It will take a lot of land off the tax rolls," he says.
Roads would be difficult to maintain. Local government employees could be laid off. At least two schools would be shuttered, he says.
Dreading that the Army will plow ahead, Montoya is already pitching compromises. Perhaps the Army could lease land from local ranchers, rather than annex it, he says. That way, the cattle industry can continue.
Many fear that the Army, if it decides to expand, will use eminent domain, a legal assumption of private land for a public purpose, to secure the space.
Back in 1980, Lt. Col. Don Stafford, Fort Carson's director of land acquisition, told the Pueblo Chieftain that the remoteness of the original site was ideal for training. He said the Army would work closely with ranchers to find mutually agreeable ways to transfer the land.
"We expect some stiff opposition," he told the newspaper. "Other owners prefer that we not take their land, but they understand our need. If the price offered is just and fair, we expect no major opposition from most of the 41 landowners."
But in the end, the Army, which spent $28 million on buying up land and relocating ranchers, resorted to condemnations on land where ranchers held out, leaving the feeling among many that the Army always intended to rid itself of those who stood in the way of expansion.
"When they couldn't buy up all the land, they moved in and used eminent domain ..." says Ray Kogovsek, a former U.S. congressman for southern Colorado, who strongly opposed the creation of the original site. "My advice to the Army [now] is just to tell the truth about what they want to do."
U.S. Rep. Joel Hefley, a Colorado Springs Republican, recently led the push for legislation that aims to prevent the Army from using eminent domain, while forcing fair payments to property owners. The Senate, currently on vacation, has not yet considered the measure.
Yet the talk about offering fair prices in Congress appears to foreshadow the exit of the ranching industry in southeast Colorado, says Robert Farnam, director of industry programs for the Colorado Cattlemen's Association.
"We're not in a position where we're compromising anything," he says. "We're opposing expansion altogether."
The cattle association estimates that expansion could eliminate up to half of Las Animas County's cattle industry, costing ranchers as much as $12 million annually. There would be immeasurable secondary ripples elsewhere in the economy, including losses to agricultural equipment dealers, veterinarians, feed stores, gas stations, retailers and more, Farnam adds.
In Picket Wire Canyon and the surrounding region, there is evidence that ancient peoples preceded American Indian tribes by about 10,000 years.
Picket Wire gets its name from the Purgatoire River, which Spaniards dubbed El Rio de Las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio, or The River of Lost Souls in Purgatory, following an Indian slaughter of Spanish explorers who never received last rites from a priest. When French-speaking fur trappers came through, they renamed the river with their word for purgatory, Purgatoire pronounced "Purga-twa" which English-speaking settlers morphed into the nonsensical Picket Wire.
The canyon was added to the grassland in the early 1990s following successful bipartisan efforts in Congress to preserve the region's history by then-Rep. Hank Brown, a Republican, and Sen. Tim Wirth, a Democrat.
"This area has little practical value to the Army, but is extremely valuable to the state and the nation and should be carefully managed," Wirth told States News Service in 1988. "The archaeological remains could yield artifacts that would help us better understand the life cycles of dinosaurs and the role that the Indians and Spaniards played in Colorado's history."
Thompson, who says the Forest Service's mission is to conserve and protect such resources, along with the varied wildlife, brings fewer than 500 visitors in lines of four-wheel drive vehicles to hear legends of lost Spanish armor and stories about recent settlers.
New Mexicans settled in the canyon about 130 years ago, building a Catholic stone and adobe church that is today falling to pieces. However, its wooden cross still survives, along with several nearby gravesites.
The old Wineglass Ranch, dating from the same period, illustrates the success story of Eugene Rourke and his family. Over a century, three generations expanded the ranch from 40 acres to 52,000 acres, making it one of southeast Colorado most successful enterprises.
On rock walls, etchings of antelope and symbols for the sun and water date back 500 to 1,500 years.
Nearby, long lines of 150-million-year-old footprints from plant-eating Apatosaurus are found right near a footprint of a meat-eating Allosaurus, which could have hunted it. In all, there are 1,300 tracks throughout the valley.
Bruce Schumacher, one of two paleontologists employed across the nation by the Forest Service, came to Picket Wire Canyon because of its scientific promise. He's currently digging up the long spine of an Apatosaurus.
"There are 30 individual sources of dinosaur bone," he says. "Five of the sites have led to skeletons."
He believes 10, maybe 15, additional skeletons could be unearthed in future expeditions into the canyon.
Schumacher says cataloguing of the site is ongoing. He adds that dinosaur bones and footprints aren't limited to Picket Wire. Footprints have been found on nearby ranches, and there are bones on the Army's current maneuver site.
In 2003, diggers happened upon what is believed to be an American Indian gravesite ringed with stones. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, work was immediately halted and tribes were consulted.
"You don't disturb gravesites," he says.
Outside the canyon lands, the Santa Fe Trail, a historic trade route, runs along U.S. Highway 350, a slice of which runs through the area that Fort Carson is eyeing. The president of the nonprofit Santa Fe Trail Association, George Donoho Bayless, of Santa Fe, N.M., is opposed to the expansion. He fears places like Iron Springs an old watering hole for travelers, near bits of the original rutted wagon road could be transferred to the Army.
"This is a horrible idea," he says. "They say that it is patriotic to expand [the base]. Well, history is patriotic, too. Everyone I run into is opposed to this. The public would be losing an important piece of history."
Additionally, across the region, there are several species considered endangered, threatened or of "special concern" to federal and state wildlife officials, including the bald eagle, whooping crane, mountain plover, lesser prairie chicken and garter snake.
Warren acknowledges the environmental, historical and scientific significance of the region. He says should Fort Carson expand into such areas, it would work to eliminate any negative impacts.
But Kogovsek, the former congressman and a natural resources lobbyist, isn't buying it. And, he says, if ranchers, activists, environmentalists, history buffs, local businesses and others want to stop the Army, they will have to put up a stronger fight. He predicts Army government liaisons in Washington, D.C., will court members of the House and Senate armed services committees in an effort to secure support and money to purchase land.
"This is where the people who are opposed have to be careful and have to be alert and have to be diligent, because the Army will lull you to sleep by saying, "Nothing is happening now,'" he says. "But they have people in Washington."
Thompson, closing the door of his pickup truck, notes that the clock could be ticking on Picket Wire Canyon and the surrounding region.
"It's a great place to visit," he says. "Everyone who sees it just loves it."