Responding to widespread fear the Army will seize land to expand its Piñon Canyon training site, U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar said he will write legislation to block mandatory property sales.
The Democratic senator said in an interview that he is considering a measure that would not only insulate property owners but force the Army to say what it is doing with its current property and why it needs more land.
Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Wayne Allard also has hardened his position.
Allard is negotiating with the Army on legislation that would offer assurances to landowners who do not want to sell, a top aide said.
The willingness of the two senators to step in now, after weeks of saying they wanted to balance conflicting needs of the Army and residents, could alter the military's plan for growth.
"The Army has told me that they only want to purchase land from willing sellers," Salazar said. "If that's the case, we ought to put it into law."
The fight over expanding the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site by more than 400,000 acres heats up next month when the Senate returns from its August break.
Legislation funding military construction is one of the first bills on the schedule.
Salazar and Allard must decide if they will use that as a means to direct the Army on Piñon Canyon. There are, however, several hurdles to passing legislation.
The Army would not comment on possible legislation.
Although the Army has said it hopes to buy from willing sellers, it maintains it has a legal right to use eminent domain, where the government can force a property owner to sell at market value.
In June, Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave of Fort Morgan and Democratic Rep. John Salazar of Manassa added an amendment to a House spending bill that blocks the Army from spending money on a Piñon Canyon expansion for one year. It passed 383-34.
Since then, Allard and Sen. Salazar have faced pressure from landowners to write similar legislation.
The senators meanwhile have wrestled with the Army's argument that it needs the land to train more than 10,000 soldiers headed to Fort Carson from Fort Hood, Texas. The Army also said it needs space for a new generation of high-tech weapons that fly farther and faster.
Allard now says that the Army must agree to "take condemnation off the table" and that it has to be in legislation because landowners don't trust the Army, said Sean Conway, Allard's chief of staff.
Allard also wants language that the Army, landowners and other lawmakers can agree with, Conway said. The Army is showing it is open to that, he said.
Army Secretary Pete Geren, in a recent meeting with Allard, said the Army "wants to be a good neighbor, and good neighbors don't take other people's land," Conway said.
Allard also is concerned that people who want to sell have the ability to do so.
Salazar said he doesn't need the Army's agreement to block eminent domain.
"It's a congressional prerogative" to use legislation to block eminent domain, Salazar said. "I don't think it's an Army prerogative how we proceed."
The Pentagon previously waived a moratorium on land acquisition, allowing Fort Carson and the Army to expand the current 235,000-acre site, established in 1983.
That triggered an earthquake of passion and resolve among farmers and ranchers, many of whom come from families who have been on the land for decades.
"I don't think people realize what this land means to people," said George Torres, 58, a rancher who owns 6,500 acres south of the current Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site.
His family has been on the land, which is in the southern 105,000 acres targeted for expansion, for 70 years. "People aren't holding this land to sell to the highest bidder."
Salazar said the stories of such ranchers greatly affected him when he traveled Tuesday to speak to land owners. Salazar and his brother, Rep. John Salazar, grew up on a ranch in Conejos County that has been in the family for five generations.
"I know what it's like to have an attachment to a piece of land that transcends your own life," Sen. Salazar said.
The effort by Salazar and Allard to resolve how the Army acquires land could become complicated.
The Senate has little time left in its calendar and needs to pass 11 spending bills — suggesting the possibility that some or most of those bills could be rolled into one large "omnibus" spending bill.
That could mean all extraneous provisions — such as the Musgrave and John Salazar amendment — get stripped out.
That makes it important to negotiate something acceptable to everyone involved, Conway said. With agreement from all parties, he said, legislation could be added to the omnibus bill.
Getting that agreement will be difficult. Reps. Salazar and Musgrave, for example, aren't willing to settle for blocking condemnation. Both oppose the expansion, saying it would take farmland out of production.
Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs wants to give the Army what it needs for training and other purposes.
"Premature use of the term 'eminent domain' has created hysteria which hinders rational and productive discussions," Lamborn said.
Many lawmakers may prove to be leery of setting a precedent of barring the government from acquiring land, said Chris Hellman, a military policy fellow with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
"I find it very hard to believe that it (legislation) is going anywhere," Hellman said.
"As a practical matter, it looks very good on paper, but unless they have commitments from committee chairs that have jurisdiction over this kind of stuff, including Armed Services in both houses, it won't happen."
Ranchers want the senators to take away the Army's checkbook. Blocking funds for the expansion guarantees it won't happen, said Lon Robertson, head of the Piñon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition.
"They can say that they will put it into a bill that they are not going to allow condemnation, but it still opens the door for funding," Robertson said.
The issue of condemnation is close to Gary Hill, a Las Animas County Commissioner, who owns land in the targeted area. The government condemned land owned by his father and brother in the early 1980s for the current 235,000-acre Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site.
For the past two years, Hill, like other landowners, have feared the Army would condemn his land.
"I don't think anybody can understand the stress that puts you under," Hill said. "As a rancher, you worry about everything anyway and then you crawl in bed and you try to go to sleep and you worry about: 'Where am I going to go? How am I going to leave? What happens to my family?' It's a tough deal."
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