Udall pushing for an end to Pinon Canyon issue

August 13, 2013 Updated: August 13, 2013 at 5:55 pm

PUEBLO - Colorado's Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall Tuesday tried to bring a sense of closure to the long-standing Pinon Canyon Army training area issue.

It's the latest attempt to end to an eight-year-old dispute over the future of the Fort Carson training area east of Trinidad.

Udall's plan is to get the Pentagon to rebuild a barrier against expanding the 235,000-acre site, driving another wooden stake into growth plans the Army disowned four years ago.

"It's been my hope this will allow the communities you represent to rest assured knowing their land is protected," Udall told an audience of Las Animas and Otero county officials.

Locals say it could end the feud.

"It's been a long time since I've been able to sleep without worrying about my home and my family," said Las Animas County commissioner Gary Hill, who called the Udall proposal a "big, huge step."

Udall was flanked by Katherine Hammack, an Army assistant secretary who oversees land use.

"We're not expanding, we're shrinking," Hammack said.

The Army began seeking more land for the 30-year-old training site in 2005, and a study sent to the Pentagon resulted in a "waiver" that allowed the Army to pursue expansion. An uprising in southeastern Colorado stirred Congress to throw up a legislative roadblocks to expansion and the Army in 2009 said expanding the maneuver site was off the table.

"We were all being good neighbors until that little expansion word came up," Hill said. "It about drove us all nuts."

But the waiver is still on the books and that has ranchers nervous that expansion could re-surface, Hill said.

With budget cuts set to take $1 trillion from Pentagon coffers over the next decade, Hammack said the Army will re-examine whether it will ever need more land.

"Now is the right time to re-evaluate the waiver," Hammack said.

Hill and others said getting the waiver lifted will bring certainty to the still-jittery ranching community and allow farming families to firm up future plans without fear of losing their land.

Udall said he's also backing a move by Colorado's Republican U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, whose district includes Pinon Canyon, that would enact a long-term legislative ban on expansion. That measure was added to the House version of a defense spending bill.

The newest efforts follow six straight years of congressional bans on expansion.

Udall, of Boulder, is facing a 2014 election and Republican Ken Buck of Greeley, who polled well in rural areas in a 2010 Senate race but lost to Sen. Michael Bennet.

By embracing the ranchers, Udall, who has never visited Pinon Canyon, grabbed an issue that resounds with rural voters.

"People all over the state have cared about Pinon Canyon," Udall said.

For the Army to reconsider the waiver is tantamount to an admission of an over-reach for training land. Post officials, who eight years ago contended that post with three brigades didn't have enough training land now say they've got enough.

"They thought they were going to ram it down our throats," Hill said.

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