Sunday, September 13, 2009

Pinon Canyon Conspiracy Theories

I've never been one to ignore a good conspiracy theory. Faced with a choice between covert agendas and official government explanations, the conspiracy theories tend, on average to be more credible. In the case of Pinon Canyon, Army documents have surfaced, through leaks, court orders and freedom of information act requests, revealing plans to acquire 6.9 million acres to turn Southeastern Colorado into the largest military training range in the world. The plan would turn the entire corner of the state, all the way to the Kansas and Oklahoma borders into a vast, depopulated, live-fire zone. For those of us with suspicious minds, the question of what the real, secret purpose of Pinon Canyon might be, have provided plenty of fodder since the early 80s.

Back then it was broadly suspected that the creation of Pinon Canyon had something to do with a helium dome which is (coincidentally?) located smack dab in the middle of the maneuver site. Helium domes are rare geological formations. There's only one other helium dome in the U.S., the Bush Dome which is the National Helium Reserve near Amarillo, Texas.

Helium domes have been discussed in scientific documents as promising sites for the storage of radioactive waste. It is logical that if the formations are capable of holding a lighter-than-air gas they could also be used to seal nuclear waste off from the outside world.

Just before the Army started condemning land and evicting ranchers to create the original Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site, two different companies came to Las Animas County with proposals to tap into the helium dome in order to create an underground chamber for the storage of nuclear waste. Public outrage resulted in the recall of a county commissioner who had met with representatives of the nuclear waste companies and put those proposals to rest.

And after the Army acquired the land there were suspicious cattle mutilations and black helicopter sitings. The theory at the time was that tissue samples were being surgically removed from the cattle in the dark of night, in order to measure radiation levels. And when then-governor, Roy Romer was pressured by the federal government to remove nuclear waste from Rocky Flats, a decommissioned nuclear weapons production plant outside of Denver, he proposed moving it to Pinon Canyon.

As recently as last year soil samples were covertly gathered and removed from the site. The samples were tested and found to contain unusually high concentrations of uranium.

There have been other conspiracy theories over the years. I've heard about plans for secret underground facilities, missile defense installations, and experimentation with high frequency radio waves designed to control everything from the weather to human behavior.

Officially, the Army says that it need more land to conduct tank training. Few seasoned conspiracy theorists are buying that simple explanation. After all, Pinon Canyon is already larger than many other bases where similar training takes place.

But there's one remaining theory which is my current favorite; that the Pentagon wants a huge mock battlefield for testing and training with a new generation of high-tech, robotic weapons. Air Force officials speak openly and proudly of a future arsenal of weapons like the Predator and Reaper, unmanned aircraft that can be controlled from thousands of miles away by a new generation of "pilots" who vaporize the enemy by zapping icons on computer screen. According to a recent Colorado Springs Gazette article the Air Force Academy is already using Fort Carson's training lands to teach Academy cadets how to "pilot" these unmanned aircraft.

There is also a whole new generation of unmanned ground vehicles; robots that will become the Army's future soldiers. In fact, The 2001 Senate defense authorization bill mandates that one third of the operational ground combat vehicles of the armed forces will be unmanned by 2015. The Army recently sponsored a "Robotics Rodeo," an event at which military contractors showcased their unmanned ground vehicles.

The official Army documents which have come to light argue that training ranges must be expanded to accommodate the ever-increasing range and lethality of modern weapons-systems. It really doesn't take a paranoid, conspiracy nut to see that the Army doesn't want to gobble up all of Southeastern Colorado for old-fashioned tank training. It's something more than that.

Okay, so future weapons will be unmanned aircraft and robotic land vehicles, coordinated over great distances through networked satellite communications. But why does the Pentagon want to take almost 7 million acres in Southeastern Colorado? Why can't they test these new weapons on existing federal lands? After all, the feds already own 70% of the Western U.S. The Pentagon alone owns 25 million acres of it.

They Army will tell you that it's to save money; that it costs too much to move troops to existing huge ranges at Fort Bliss in Texas, or to Dugway in Utah. The Chamber of Commerce in Colorado Springs will tell you that it's about the survival of Fort Carson and the economic viability of their city. I don't buy either argument. Troops are moved all over the place all the time for all sorts of reasons, including training. And Fort Carson is one of the Army's premiere bases. It's not going anywhere. It's not about the troops or forts or the even the Army. It's about defense contractors.

That's why politicians like Representatives Lamborn and Coffman are fighting so hard for the expansion. They represent districts in which corporations like Raytheon and Boeing and Lockheed are involved with satellites and communications and robotics. These weapons-makers want a convenient place to develop and train troops with their products. That's the conspiracy. Military contractors are the ones who are really pulling the political and military strings behind the scheme to expand Pinon Canyon.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Follow the Pinon Canyon Money

"Follow the money", they say. That's not hard to do when it comes to the motives behind the backers of Pinon Canyon expansion. I have to give them credit for their recent honesty. Early on in the battle between landowners trying to defend their land and the Pentagon with it plan to turn their homes into mock Afghan villages, there was a lot of high-minded rhetoric about, "supporting the troops" and "military necessity." But recently expansion cheer leaders like Doug Lamborn, Scott McInnis and Mike Coffman have come down to earth; down to the bottom line. In the words of Scott McInnis, "Hell, this is about jobs!" The position of Doug Lamborn is a no-brainer. He represents Colorado Springs with Fort Carson as its primary economic engine and with 40% of the citiy's economy dependent upon the military and defense contractors, it's pretty obvious. But at first I didn't quite understand why Mike Coffman, from way up north in Aurora was weighing in so heavily on the issue. So I followed the money. I googled "defense contracts" and "Colorado." As I expected Colorado Springs is in the top position, but guess who's second. You guessed it. Aurora is not only the location of Buckley Air Force Base, but also of such military-contracting big names as Lockheed, Raytheon and Boeing. Once you've stripped away all of the phoney patriotism, the issue of expanding Pinon Canyon boils down to feeding hard-working, multi-generational ranching families to the money-hungry wolves of the military-industrial complex.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Army's New "Good Will" Initiative on Pinon Canyon

I helped to man a booth for the Pinon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition last weekend at the Trinididdio Blues Festival. Many of the people who stopped by to grab a “No Expansion” bumper sticker or to sign our petition made the same comment, “I thought this was all over.”

To the casual observer it may appear that David has defeated Goliath; that an unlikely coalition of conservative ranchers and left-leaning peace activists have accomplished the impossible; beating back the Pentagon.

We have won some significant battles. The Colorado legislature has passed a measure, HB1317 which prohibits the sale of state lands to the Army for the purpose of expanding Pinon Canyon. And once again, Representative John Salazar has been successful in attaching a ban on spending for Pinon Canyon expansion to the 2010 military construction budget. So it’s understandable if looks like we’ve won.

But for those of us who’ve been fighting for the homes and livelihoods of ranchers in Southeastern Colorado for the past four years, dispelling the false sense that the battle is over has become our biggest challenge. As much as we’d like it to be true that we’ve succeeded in defending our land against an invasion by our own military, the unfortunate truth is that the Army recently reaffirmed that the expansion of Pinon Canyon remains a top priority.

The only reason that the Army is not actively pursuing expansion at the moment is that they can’t. They are under a spending ban imposed upon them by Congress. Instead of accepting the fact that they’ve been hamstrung for at least a year, they’re pretending that they’ve decided to hold off for a while in order to work on developing a new “good neighbor” policy.

At a recent meeting of Action-22, an organization representing the interests of Southeastern Colorado, Col. James Rice, (retired), Fort Carson’s operations officer, announced the Army’s new focus; wooing backers by investing in our local hospital and by coaching our local businesses in the art of securing contracts with the Department of the Army. He spoke of spending millions to upgrade medical services at the Trinidad hospital and of hosting seminars in Trinidad on securing government contracts. He said that the Army has decided not to move forward with expansion at this time; that all of this is being done in the interest of building up “good will” and has nothing to do with future expansion plans.

But in the meantime current Secretary of Army, Pete Geren says he’d like to, "hit the reset button." on Pinon Canyon. Geren made the point that, “the development of Pinon Canyon properly done could bring some economic development to a part of the state that is economically depressed. We see an opportunity to make a contribution in that regard.” (Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing, June 19, 2009) And at a Senate confirmation hearing, Representative John McHugh, who was recently nominated to replace Geren as Secretary was unwilling to promise Senator Mark Udall that the Army would permanently take eminent domain off the table as a means of expanding Pinon Canyon. Instead he promised that working with willing sellers would be his “first path” towards expansion. (Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing, July 30, 2009)

So, while we may have won a couple of significant skirmishes, the war between ranchers trying to defend their land and the U.S. Army and economic interests in Colorado Spring rages on.