Training wheels 

Fort Carson brigade is first to train under new rules at Piñon Canyon

On Feb. 24, 2013, Fort Carson's 2nd Brigade Combat Team slogged through the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site after a sunny day quickly melted a blanket of snow ("Digging dirt," News, June 26, 2013).

Heavy vehicles so badly damaged 1,200 acres that Carson sought a $1.3 million special appropriation from the Pentagon to fix it. Drills were suspended until "smoothing" and replanting took place, says Dan Benford, director of plans, training, mobilization and security for the 4th Infantry Division. That work, which rehabilitated all but 35 acres, was finished in August 2013 and has served as a lesson to Army commanders in caring for PCMS, a 235,000-acre shortgrass prairie in southeast Colorado.

So when roughly 3,000 soldiers and 1,100 Army vehicles with the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team started conducting drills at the site this past weekend, they were under more robust protocols for monitoring, assessing and preventing damage to the natural and cultural resources there, says Benford.

Ten days before the exercise, Benford says, his environmental team assessed soil saturation levels and other conditions and found the ground "generally moist," but not muddy in most areas. That kind of information will be passed along daily to commanders so units can avoid sloppy spots.

"We're focusing on sharing as much scientific data with military commanders as possible," he says. "They will be given information on soil saturation, precipitation levels, any environmental impacts, like trash, small oil spills, identifying things that need to be fixed right away and things they need to get after so they can depart Piñon Canyon on time."

Also, the Army has stationed dozers and other recovery equipment at the site during the exercise to repair damage if and when it happens, or immediately after it ends in mid-June. "We won't release the unit until it's done," Benford says.

He also notes that his unit has surrounded the 35 acres that weren't rehabilitated in 2013 with off-limits signs. Also, Carson bought reseeding equipment to enable quicker rehab efforts, signed an agreement with state historical officials identifying historic sites to avoid, and met with tribal leaders to pinpoint cultural resources. A mandatory training video for all soldiers features remarks by Native American elders, he says.

While several smaller units — platoons and companies — are slated to train at PCMS this year, only one other brigade exercise is being contemplated, in November, and it's not finalized, he says.

But Not 1 More Acre!'s Jean Aguerre isn't placated. She's critical of the environmental study that assessed the impact of more intensified use of PCMS, including for demolition practice and drone use. The Record of Decision (ROD) signed May 1, which allows expanded use, fails to recognize scientific findings that suggest damaged shortgrass at PCMS can't simply be reseeded, she says. Rather, she cites experts who claim it takes a century to recover. Aguerre also notes that, by one calculation, parts of PCMS that are beat down by heavy vehicles will lose up to 86 tons of soil per acre to wind erosion.

The decision, though, did conclude that stepped-up use "will result in significant impacts to soils, water resources, and biological resources," and requires restricting or reducing training "when the soils are saturated (e.g., after a rain or snow event)."

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