Colorado, a state that has long been friendly toward the military, is poised to try to stop the Army from using eminent domain to vastly expand a troop training ground on the southeastern Plains.
At the urging of ranchers who live near Fort Carson’s Pinon Canyon maneuver site, state lawmakers approved a bill that withdraws Colorado’s “consent” for the federal government to acquire more land for Pinon Canyon.
The measure is now on the desk of Gov. Bill Ritter. Spokesman Evan Dryer wouldn’t comment Friday on whether Ritter will sign it but said the governor has “very serious concerns about the use of eminent domain” for the expansion.
While military bases have faced closure elsewhere, Colorado Springs’ Fort Carson is adding 10,000 soldiers and will be home to 25,000 troops by 2009. It will also be a training site for National Guard units from around the West. The post has sent over 13,000 soldiers to Iraq, many on multiple tours, and many of the new soldiers arriving from Fort Hood have served in Iraq.
The Army, which has kept out of the debate at the Legislature, has said expanding Pinon Canyon will give soldiers the chance to replicate the distances and pace they experience in battle, using new technology like unmanned small aircraft. Telephone messages left for the Pinon Canyon liaison weren’t returned. Officials have said they can’t rule out the possibility of using eminent domain.
But southeastern Colorado ranchers, many of them descendants of homesteaders, fear they’re being asked to sacrifice their way of life. Up to around 80 ranches could be lost depending on how the expansion is laid out, and they say that would not only affect the cattle business and the state’s agricultural industry — its second largest — but also have a ripple effect on the region’s businesses and communities.
Ranchers also don’t think the Army has proven why it has to have more land as the nation’s emphasis shifts to fighting terrorists.
“These are things that make Colorado special and to just say it’s a pile of dirt, surely there is a better place for the Army to expand,” said Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, who despite the bill’s passage isn’t sure the state can stop the expansion.
The bill sent to Ritter cites a provision of Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution that requires states to give permission before land can be purchased to build forts, arsenals and dockyards. It seeks to apply that to Pinon Canyon’s proposed 654-square-mile expansion — about two-thirds the size of Delaware.
The bill explicitly states that Colorado can’t stop the federal government from using eminent domain to claim land from unwilling landowners. But it also says that “consent is not hereby given to the acquisition of, or exclusive jurisdiction over, land sought by the United States Department of Defense” to expand Pinon Canyon.
Larry Daves, a lawyer for the ranchers, argues the bill will bolster any state efforts in court to stop the use of eminent domain to expand the training ground. He said it also would give the state the authority to stop owners from willingly selling their land to the Army, but he doesn’t think the state would try to do that.
Opponents call the bill a “feel-good” measure that could backfire by sending a negative message to the Pentagon and making Fort Carson — the state’s largest employer — vulnerable to a future downsizing or closure.
Brian Binn, president for military affairs at the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, said Fort Carson emerged as a winner in the 1995 round of base closures partly because of the availability of Pinon Canyon.
He said the expansion would generate another 400 to 500 jobs beyond the post, for a total of 24,000 civilian jobs linked to Fort Carson. He estimates that the state and local governments would receive nearly $180 million a year in tax revenue.
“It’s an asset the state needs to protect,” Binn said.
Besides Fort Carson, established a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Colorado Springs is home to two Air Force bases and the Air Force Academy. Together they help bring in $3 billion into the economy every year, according to the chamber.
Daves said the Army likely won’t try to take land for another two years, and if it tries to use eminent domain, the state could go to the courts.
Rancher Lon Robertson, president of the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site Expansion Opposition Coalition, hopes the publicity generated by the opposition will persuade Congress that expansion isn’t needed.
“I think what this bill has done is foster so much help and awareness that our message is being carried out to the rest of the nation,” said Robertson, who owns a ranch near Kim, a town of some 65 people 140 miles southeast of Colorado Springs.
Many area ranchers have been wary of their Army neighbor since the 1980s, when Fort Carson acquired 250,000 acres — about half by eminent domain — to create Pinon Canyon. They’re still bitter about how property owners were treated then.
A military map showing a proposed 2.5 million-acre, multiyear expansion — covering much of the state’s southeastern corner — was leaked last year, fueling more suspicions. Fort Carson said the proposal was an old one.
Criticism of the handling of the war in Iraq, including a lack of equipment for soldiers, and poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center have helped the ranchers gather support beyond rural Colorado, Robertson claimed.
“We consider ourselves extremely patriotic, and because of that we are asking the questions we need to ask,” Robertson said.
Army Times: http://www.armytimes.com