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.

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