Congressman looks for truce in Pinon Canyon fight

June 13, 2013 Updated: June 13, 2013 at 1:30 pm

A Colorado congressman is pushing a measure he hopes will bury the Army's long-dormant plans to expand Fort Carson's Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site.

Republican U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner has offered a measure that would ban the Army from expanding the 235,000-acre training area without a congressional vote. Gardner said that would put an end to an annual push by ranchers in southeastern Colorado to ban expansion funding, and tamp down years of rancor between the Army and its neighbors.

"It's quite frankly not been good for Fort Carson or the people of Southern Colorado," said Gardner, whose 4th Congressional District includes Pinon Canyon. "I think the negative publicity surrounding the yearly fight was not good for Fort Carson."

Every year since 2006, Congress has taken up legislation to ban funding to expand the training area. The Army in 2005 issued plans to expand Pinon Canyon, with its ambitions starting at an eye-popping 418,000 acres before it settled on a 100,000-acre expansion.

The expansion was needed, Army planners said, to train in new methods of warfare that allowed Army brigades to fight across a larger battlefield than foreseen 30 years ago when PinonCanyon opened.

The expansion put ranchers, many still angry over the Army's initial acquisition of Pinon Canyon, on the warpath. The ranchers feared that the expansion would lead to the closure of already-tiny rural schools and shutter the few businesses left on the prairie.

A coalition of ranchers banded with peace activists and environmentalists to block the Army move.

Since 2009, the Army has shunned talk of expansion, but the Pinon Canyon fight is on full display in the halls of Congress every year.

Andy Merritt, who oversees defense issues for the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, said those fights, which pitted the interests of Colorado Springs against its southern neighbors, left a mark and Gardner's bill could help stop the bleeding.

"We'll stop having these annual bills that do us damage as a community and do Fort Carson damage in the halls of the Pentagon," Merritt said.

Gardner's measure, an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act which has drawn bipartisan support, doesn't block future expansion, but makes it more difficult.

The Army would be required to complete an environmental impact assessment for expansion and get measures to pay for the land through both chambers of Congress.

Bill Sulzman, a Colorado Springs peace activist and expansion opponent, said Gardner's measure will give ranchers a degree of certainty that the Army won't expand PinonCanyon.

"This yearly thing is a nail-biter," Sulzman said of the efforts to block money for expansion through Congress. "Everybody worries that if the funding ban doesn't pass one year, it will be full-bore ahead."

Ranchers have complained that having expansion on the table has caused them to delay plans for land improvements and herd expansions.

"Now, they won't have blanket permission to expand," Sulzman said.

Merritt said that Gardner's measure, while banning expansion, acknowledges the importance of Pinon Canyon as a training site.

The military says Pinon Canyon offers land for large field maneuvers and also has complex terrain that can prepare troops to fight in places including Afghanistan.

Gardner said the Army is supporting his measure.

"I think the negative publicity surrounding the yearly fight was not good for Fort Carson," he said.

The Army is expected to decide this month whether it will add troops to the Colorado Springs post, or cut its ranks by up to 8,000 soldiers. Infighting in Colorado could impact that and future decisions as the military works to cut its budget by up to $1 trillion over 10 years, Merritt said.

Gardner said ending the Pinon Canyon fight with a peaceable truce is good "for the people of Colorado and the soldiers at Fort Carson."

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