Updated: December 16, 2009 at 12:00 am
Gov. Bill Ritter touted his administration’s support of troops and veterans on a swing through Colorado Springs on Wednesday. But he also dodged questions about one of most vexing issues on the military front in Colorado: expanding the Army’s Piñon Canyon training area near Trinidad.
At a construction site on Fort Carson, the state’s largest military post, Ritter signed a proclamation extolling the virtues of the national nonprofit Helmets to Hardhats, which links veterans with union construction jobs.
He also praised state programs aimed at getting veterans mental health care, improved access to state colleges and employment assistance.
“We pledge to you we’ll do all we can to support you in your efforts,” Ritter told Fort Carson’s commander, Maj. Gen. David Perkins.
Ritter, though, wouldn’t talk about his support of a state ban on leasing land it owns to the Army to expand Fort Carson’s 235,000-acre Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site.
The Army has said it needs the land to train additional soldiers it sent to Fort Carson over the past five years. They include 6,500 who arrived this summer when the 4th Infantry Division Headquarters and its 1st Brigade Combat Team moved here from Texas. The post’s troop total stands at about 25,000.
Asked about the training land expansion, Ritter rattled off a list of state programs to help troops. “It’s a full commitment,” he said.
But on the expansion, Ritter shut off questions.
“That’s all I have to say about it,” he said.
Earlier this year, Ritter signed into law House Bill 1317, which forbids state agencies from selling or leasing land for Piñon Canyon expansion. It is a battle that could be repeated at the General Assembly this year as El Paso County lawmakers look to soften the measure.
Pinon Canyon expansion opponents say it would harm ranchers in the area and raise the specter of federal seizure of grazing land.
Local lawmakers fear the Pentagon will sour on keeping troops in the Pikes Peak region, where a military withdrawal would devastate the economy.
“If all the defense and military dollars went away from Colorado Springs the economy would probably shrink by 40 percent,” said economist David Bamberger with David Bamberger and Associates in Colorado Springs.
The Army this summer decided to pull back 3,500 soldiers who were planned to join Fort Carson’s ranks. A coalition of five El Paso County Republican state lawmakers issued a statement Wednesday saying “the governor’s strident opposition to additional Fort Carson training facilities is clearly causing the Pentagon to look to other states to locate other key military commands.”
“You just as well put up a sign at border of the state that says ‘Army go home’,” said state Rep. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican.
Call the writer: 636-0240