Piñon Canyon

Residents of southeast Colorado got some good news Monday when Assistant Secretary of the Army Katherine Hammack announced that the Army has repealed a “land acquisition waiver” that dated to 2007. With that, the Army has officially dropped plans to expand the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site northeast of Trinidad.

The waiver had exempted Piñon Canyon from a moratorium on acquiring more land. What repealing it means is that the folks who live there now have a reasonable expectation that they can keep their homes, their land and their way of life. It is about time.

Standing by Hammack was Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who has long opposed the Piñon Canyon expansion and has been pushing the Army to repeal the waiver. He said the move should end the neighboring landowners’ fears of losing their property.

Those landowners have lived with that fear for too long. In one form or another, this fight went on for more than 30 years.

In the early 1980s, the Army acquired 235,000 acres of land and established the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site to train soldiers from Colorado Springs’ Fort Carson. In that much of it was taken through eminent domain, the locals have been skeptical and fearful ever since.

And with good reason. Seven years ago, the Army announced that because base closures and force realignments had boosted Fort Carson’s troop strength Piñon Canyon would also have to expand. The Army said it was looking at acquiring an additional 418,000 acres.

But as Westword reported in 2011, leaked documents showed the long-term plan was to take over as much as 6.9 million acres – essentially the entire southeast corner of Colorado.

The Army soon found the ranchers were not about to give up their land without a fight. They organized into groups with names like the Piñon Canyon Expansion Oppositions Coalition and Not 1 More Acre! and dug in their heels. Fearful of the affect on property taxes, local governments and school districts joined in as well.

They also found they had allies in the environmental community and among scientists such as paleontologists and anthropologists. Where the Army apparently saw only empty land, they saw a fragile and precious environment brimming with interesting finds and worthy of protection.

For starters, the area is rich in fossils. That includes what Westword described as “the longest single trackline of dinosaur footprints in North America.”

It also has a rich human history, with relics representing several cultures and peoples. There are petroglyphs that could be more than 4,000 years old and European influence that dates to the 16th century.

But it is not land that heals quickly. One critic of the Piñon Canyon expansion worried about what Army maneuvers would do to ground that still shows the tracks of 19th century wagons.

And it is home to a number of endangered or threatened species. None of them are fond of tanks and armored personnel carriers.

This fight has gone back and forth, but since the initial condemnations, the locals have fared well. In 2009, Not 1 More Acre! took the fight to court where a federal judge ruled that the Army’s environmental impact statement was insufficient. And they have been successful in lining up political support in both parties.

Looking at future cuts, the Army decided several years ago that the Piñon Canyon expansion was unneeded. And, while it did not say so, it may also be questioning the need for big, heavy 20th century style weaponry.

But as Udall said, the repeal of the waiver adds a welcome certainty that plans to expand Piñon Canyon are truly over.

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