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'Too speculative' 

Questions fester following Army's Pion Canyon report

click to enlarge Sen. Ken Salazar is looking for details on the Armys - plans. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Sen. Ken Salazar is looking for details on the Armys plans.

In a long-awaited Army report that arrived about a week past its deadline, Sens. Ken Salazar and Wayne Allard didn't get to learn much about the future proposed for Pion Canyon Maneuver Site.

The report was vague in spelling out what would happen if the 235,000-acre southeastern Colorado training ground grew by 418,000 acres and became the nation's largest.

Fort Carson has already identified an ambiguous 1-million-acre area of interest surrounding the site near La Junta. Private ranches, national grassland, rock art by ancient people, dinosaur dig and footprint sites, stretches of highways, slices of rivers and small towns could be absorbed.

A coalition of ranchers, peace activists, scientists, students and others has risen in opposition. It strongly backed the senators' effort to obtain specifics about the economic and environmental impacts of possible expansion.

But the report, which the senators called for under legislation passed earlier this year, concluded it would be "too speculative" to provide answers on those subjects. Instead, the report said the Defense Department would have to grant the Army a land-expansion waiver before such analyses could be completed.

Bill Sulzman, a Colorado Springs peace activist opposed to expansion, says the Army rested on a technicality to avoid answering the senators' questions.

"This is extremely upsetting, but not entirely surprising, given Fort Carson's determination not to give specifics to the public," he says.

A final decision on the proposed land-expansion waiver appears "several months away," Salazar said in a conference call last week. He hasn't yet taken a position for or against expansion, but met with Assistant Secretary of Defense Keith Eastin to discuss the then-coming report.

"I told him that part of that concern, I think, is coming from the fact that the Army has not yet given a complete picture of what their plans are with the Pion Canyon expansion," Salazar said. "And I said the sooner that they can get it, the better, because people would not be fighting a phantom."

Fears among ranchers are rampant that the Army would use eminent domain, or public taking of land. Fort Carson has said it will seek only "willing sellers."

However, when the maneuver site was created about two decades ago, the Army resorted to condemnations despite promises to the contrary. And the report stated that because of strong opposition to expansion, the Army considers it "highly unlikely" that the expansion could be "conducted solely through transactions with willing sellers."

"That appears to set up a confrontation between the Army and the politicians like Salazar and Allard, who have come out against condemnations," says Doug Holdread, a professor at Trinidad State Junior College and member of the opposition coalition.

Neither Salazar nor Allard could be reached for further comment on Tuesday. But in last week's conference call, Salazar said it could be up to two years before the Army seeks funds to purchase land.

Meanwhile, the prospect of expansion already is impairing the region, Holdread says.

"Just the threat of expansion has put a lot of things on hold here," he says. "People don't want to invest if things might change. It's hurting people down here already."

deyoanna@csindy.com

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