The Pion PR offensive 

Army backtracks only so far en route 'to the drawing board'

click to enlarge U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar wants to have troops stationed in - southeast Colorado. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar wants to have troops stationed in southeast Colorado.

From the view of southeast Colorado ranchers, Army Secretary Pete Geren's aims are clear.

They say that when Geren wrote to the state's U.S. senators that the Army is heading "back to the drawing board" regarding Fort Carson's Pion Canyon Maneuver Site, that meant changing public-relations plans, not actual expansion plans.

"We don't see anything different the Army is just trying to find another way to sell the expansion," says rancher Lon Robertson, who leads a broad coalition of ranchers, conservationists, scientists and others opposed to expansion.

Fort Carson this week confirmed that it still hopes to buy some 418,000 acres of "interest" east of Walsenburg, most of which is private ranchland around the current 235,000-acre Pion Canyon Maneuver Site.

"At least that's as far as I know," says post spokeswoman Dee McNutt, adding that the Army now is looking for ways to discuss the plan while listening to concerns.

And while Colorado Sens. Ken Salazar and Wayne Allard issued statements last week applauding Geren's overture, neither took a position on a wildly popular House measure that prevents the funding of an environmental and economic study key to expanding the site.

Geren, in his letter to the senators, wrote that the Army's "land acquisition approach" needs tweaking.

"Our intent is to fully consider potential economic enhancements to local communities, with the goal of accomplishing the acquisition of the necessary property from willing sellers," Geren wrote. "We will not move forward with any acquisition until we have had an opportunity to discuss ideas for a win-win solution with you and with the local communities."

Tony Koren, a partner in The NorthStone Group and a chairman of the Colorado Defense Mission Coalition, calls Geren's letter an "appropriate move." Since last year, when expansion plans first surfaced in the media, the Army has proven "inept" and has failed to make a "coherent case" for expansion, Koren says.

"They have already gotten into the "where' and "how' without getting into the "why,'" Koren says, noting that the Army had mapped out expansion areas and outlined an official process before publicly justifying its need for extra land.

Pikes Peak-area business boosters support the idea of studying expansion, pointing to its potential to spur further economic growth. Already, hundreds of millions of dollars flow into the region via Fort Carson, with another 10,000 new troops scheduled to arrive over the next few years.

But the plan has galvanized an array of opponents. Some fear the Army will resort to eminent domain to take land from holdout ranchers. Others are concerned about the environment and scientific treasures in the region, such as unearthed dinosaur bones.

Prior to receiving Geren's letter, Salazar urged a "win-win," calling for the stationing of 3,500 to 4,000 troops in southeast Colorado to help the region's economy. The concept, however, is widely seen as unworkable because the region lacks housing, schools and services for the troops' families.

His idea aside, Salazar touted Army interest in working with southeast Colorado after recognizing that it "needs to fundamentally rethink its plans for expansion at Pion Canyon."

Robertson wasn't as optimistic. He says the Army doesn't seem to be rethinking plans, but rather rethinking how it can make the idea of expansion more politically palatable.

"A "win-win' is impossible, except for Colorado Springs' business interests," Robertson says.



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