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Piñon Canyon fans court Ritter's veto

May 5, 2009

DENVER • Supporters of the Army's efforts to expand the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site launched a campaign Tuesday to persuade Gov. Bill Ritter to veto a measure intended to make expansion impractical.

And they have found a new ally: former Congressman Scott McInnis, who used to represent many of the ranchers who oppose the expansion. The bill, HB1317, was approved by the Legislature last Wednesday. Ritter has not indicated whether he will sign it, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

Piñon Canyon, a 235,000-acre tract northeast of Trinidad, is a training ground for Fort Carson. The Army wants to expand the site by at least 85,000 acres, saying it needs more room to simulate the modern battlefield. Local ranchers don't want to sell, and are afraid that despite the Army's assurances it will attempt to seize their land by eminent domain.

Army Secretary Pete Geren, who was at Fort Carson on Tuesday, said he didn't view the state's opposition to selling the Army land as a "show-stopper."

The two sides have been bickering for years, with Colorado Springs leaders, mindful of the economic importance of Fort Carson, mostly taking the Army's side.

The bill attempts to settle the argument on the ranchers' side. As in the rest of the state, the land surrounding Piñon Canyon is riddled with Section 16s and other state holdings.

If the state were forbidden to sell or lease these lands to the Army, an expanded maneuver site would begin to resemble Swiss cheese.

Speaking for the El Paso County Commission, Chairman Jim Bensberg wrote to Ritter on Tuesday, urging him to veto the bill, saying it would send "a bad message to our federal government and specifically to the Department of Defense and Department of the Army."

The Colorado Springs Housing and Building Association released a letter to Ritter from its president, Ralph Braden Jr., saying in part:

"At a time when our community and our state are struggling with the most challenging economy in decades, the Colorado Legislature is sending the wrong message to the Department of Defense and the federal government with the passage of HB1317 last week. Fort Carson is the second-largest employer in the state - second only to the state government. The expansion of Piñon Canyon will bring needed jobs and many other economic benefits to southeast Colorado and the Pikes Peak region."

But by far the most intriguing part of the campaign was the letter sent to Ritter by McInnis.

"I believe a compromise can be reached on this important issue that takes into account both the needs of the private property owners and that of the U.S. Army," he wrote. "I believe that your signature on this legislation will make that important middle ground very difficult to reach."

Sen. Ken Kester, R-Las Animas, the Senate sponsor of the bill, said he was surprised by McInnis' stand.

"I can understand the commission, I can understand the home builders," Kester said. "But this Scott McInnis - it's a little bit disheartening to me that he would go against a big number of his constituents in southern Colorado."

In an interview, McInnis said his goal was neither permitting the expansion nor blocking it, but "allowing the negotiation process to run its due course." He described the bill as "an unfortunate shortcut of the process."

"It's not coming out against my former constituents," he said.

McInnis is on the short list of Republicans considering a run for their party's nomination for governor in 2010. In any statewide GOP primary, heavily Republican Colorado Springs is the biggest prize. Southeastern Colorado is also GOP territory, but doesn't have many voters.

Ritter's office did not return two messages seeking his position on the bill and his reaction to the letter-writing campaign.


Gazette writer Pam Zubeck contributed to this report.



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