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Growing concern 

Fort Carson general makes case for Pion Canyon expansion

click to enlarge Many of those opposed to Fort Carsons plans for - training ground expansion worry about the future of - southeast Colorados rare rock formations and historical - treasures. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Many of those opposed to Fort Carsons plans for training ground expansion worry about the future of southeast Colorados rare rock formations and historical treasures.

Transforming Fort Carson's Pion Canyon Maneuver Site into the largest Army training ground in the nation is critical to keeping troops prepared for a war on terror that could last another decade, according to Maj. Gen. Robert Mixon.

"We're at war and we're going to be at war for a long time," he said. "The enemy brought the war to us. ... Our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have got to be ready to do what we ask them to do."

The major general's rare public remarks regarding the post's highly controversial bid to expand the southeast Colorado training site came last week, during a breakout session at a packed Town Hall meeting. At the Antlers Hilton hotel, officials discussed how the rising number of troops coming to Fort Carson will impact the region.

The post wants to expand the roughly 235,000-acre Pion Canyon Maneuver Site that lies about two dozen miles south of La Junta by another 418,577 acres. That land is likely to fall within a 1-million-acre area of interest that includes private ranchland.

That has riled the region's ranchers, who say their livelihoods are at stake. They fear the Army could resort to using eminent domain or public taking of private land despite officials' insistence that land would only be purchased from "willing sellers."

A broad range of politicians, scientists, history buffs, students and activists also protest expansion because the post's area of interest engulfs slices of the Purgatoire and Apishapa rivers, a part of the historic Santa Fe Trail, several small towns and U.S. Forest Service land. That includes Picket Wire or Purgatoire Canyon, site of important dinosaur tracks and bone digs, ancient rock art and early Colorado settlements.

A workable minimum

Mixon, who claimed Fort Carson's environmental efforts at the current training ground show it can protect such resources, described the region as "remarkable," compared with other Army training sites. The area has a high altitude not found on other sites, unique terrain, available air space and excellent communications capacities, he said.

The post initially identified a larger acreage for expansion, but settled on 418,577 acres as a workable minimum, he said. The figure, he added, is "in the realm of the possible, at least in the near term."

The Pentagon is currently reviewing Fort Carson documents that outline the post's projected training needs. Ultimately, Congress must also be supportive, particularly in terms of funding an expansion.

A handful of opponents expressed distrust of the Army's motives during the session. They said they have had to fight the post for information.

They referenced redacted documents and a map that shows the maneuver site growing to about four times the size of Rhode Island, spanning south and east, to the New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas state lines.

Fort Carson's director of environmental compliance and management has previously confirmed such a map emanated from the post, but has dismissed it as the "wild-eyed idea" of commanders outlining future Army interests.

5 million acres short

Yet opponents fret that in the future there could be further bids for land if Army officials are emboldened by any success.

"This is a very serious matter," said Bill Sulzman, a Colorado Springs peace activist. "The future of our state what it is going to look like in 10 or 15 years."

Several ranchers and activists at the session expressed frustration with Sens. Ken Salazar and Wayne Allard because the two have not stated opposition to expansion.

Both senators, whose liaisons attended the session, are against the use of eminent domain. The senators also successfully pushed through legislation requiring the Defense Department to answer a long list of questions about expansion.

Richard Skorman, a liaison for Salazar, said answers are expected by month's end. He told opponents that expansion is far from a done deal.

"It's not predetermined that this is going to happen, because there are huge funding priorities in the Defense Department right now, and this may not be one of them," Skorman said. "It really may not be."

Meanwhile, Lon Robertson, a resident of the small town of Kim who leads a Pion Canyon expansion opposition group, said he would take the battle beyond Colorado to ensure politicians from other states understand what is happening here.

"This is a national issue," he said.

But it is unclear how political interests in other states would come into play.

Overall, the Army is some 5 million acres short of training land, according to a statement Fort Carson spokeswoman Karen Edge provided to the Independent after the session.

deyoanna@csindy.com

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