Ritter thwarts Army expansion in Piñon Canyon

By Leslie Jorgensen

COLORADO SPRINGS — Two years ago, most folks here were celebrating the prospect of doubling the size of Fort Carson to accommodate the influx of nearly 15,000 soldiers by 2013. This week, optimism plunged when Gov. Bill Ritter signed into law a bill that thwarts the expansion of the Army’s Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site, and the Army scrapped plans to add a brigade that had been destined for the Army post.

Since 2007, the Pikes Peak region had reveled in the prospect of Fort Carson’s growth — it would also generate thousands of civilian jobs, an economic boom for businesses and hundreds of millions of dollars in construction. The latter promised to bolster a construction industry that was teetering on a downhill spiral.

Equally enticing was the Army’s plan to add 418,000 acres to the Piñon Canyon training area located in southeastern Colorado. At the time, the top brass said boosting the number of Fort Carson’s active-duty soldiers to 30,000 was not contingent on expansion of the training site.

That reassurance spelled relief in El Paso County — home to five military installations, including Fort Carson, the second largest employer in Colorado.

Since 2006, the proposed training site expansion had been under siege by ranchers, who aimed to prevent the Army from using eminent domain to take the property. Eminent domain was one tactic used in the creation of the 235,000-acre training site in 1983 and had embittered the ranching community.

Despite the Army’s insistence that it had no intention of using eminent domain, the ranchers lobbied lawmakers relentlessly to find a means to fight the expansion.

The plan was shelved temporarily again and again as Congress required the Army to provide additional environmental impact studies and validation for the expansion. Perhaps the ranchers’ passionate resistance influenced the Army to pare the proposed additional training acreage from 418,000 to the current 100,000 acres.

The turning point came Tuesday, when Ritter signed into law House Bill 1317, which bans the sale or lease of state-owned or managed land for expansion of the Piñon Canyon training site.

“While this bill is not a final resolution to this long-running issue, it will give private landowners some sense of security,” said Ritter in a statement. “This legislation says to landowners that their state government is listening.”

Ritter said he had weighed the Army’s training requirements for national defense and Fort Carson’s positive economic impact on the state against the need to protect the rights of property owners — particularly ranchers and farmers.

The governor said the bill is a step toward “a mutually agreeable path — a path that protects private property rights and allows the military to effectively train this nation’s fighting forces.”

Ritter’s perception was questioned by several Colorado lawmakers.

“It sounds like spin. The bill is an absolute ban on sale or lease of state land for the purpose of national defense training,” said Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, whose district edges on Fort Carson.

“How does that allow the military to train forces?” he asked.

“Either the governor doesn’t understand the bill which he signed into law or he is spinning something for the public to buy that is absolutely at odds with reality,” Gardner declared.

“It is no compromise. We might as well put signs at every entry to the state that say, ‘Army not welcome!’” Gardner exclaimed.

Gardner said the law might not be constitutional. It’s not known if anyone will emerge to challenge it. Furthermore, Gardner said the state is powerless to override the federal government’s use of eminent domain to obtain land for national defense needs.

Republican U.S. Representatives Mike Coffman and Doug Lamborn issued terse statements about the law — weeks after urging the governor to veto the bill.

“The governor clearly has no concept about the training and readiness of our combat forces,” said Coffman, of the 6th Congressional District. “By signing HB 1317 … the governor has sent a very clear message that the men and women who serve our nation in uniform are not welcome here.

“I think he would be more sympathetic if the U.S. Army were to declare itself a terrorist organization — since he is going out of his way to block the Army while at the same time laying out the welcome mat to house terrorists from Guantanamo Bay,” declared Coffman, a Marine Corps reservist who served in the Gulf and Iraq wars.

“While other states which are affected by this reorganization (of the Army) are busy positioning themselves to compete for the two heavy brigades being relocated from Germany, Governor Bill Ritter is making things worse at Fort Carson,” said Lamborn, who represents the 5th Congressional District, which includes the Army post.

Lamborn had just received the news that the Army had dashed plans to send the 47th Brigade Team to Fort Carson in 2011 — representing a loss of 3,500 soldiers and a potential $390 million in military construction funds.

“(Ritter) signed into law a bill that takes the unprecedented action of barring the state from selling or leasing land to the U.S. Army, though the board is free to do so to anyone else,” said Lamborn, noting the disparity in treatment.

“All that the Army wishes to do to better train our troops in current battlefield tactics is to buy or lease land from willing landowners,” asserted Lamborn. “This is in accordance with landowners’ Constitutional private property rights.”

Lamborn said the expansion would bolster not only the economy of El Paso County, but also the state and communities in and near the Piñon Canyon training site.

“Currently, Fort Carson’s annual economic impact in Colorado is an estimated $1.64 billion,” said Lamborn.

Had the expansion moved forward, he said, the Army had “pledged in writing to bring a construction budget of $140 million and annual payroll of $9 million to Las Animas County.”

Democrats U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey and John Salazar, who encouraged Ritter to sign the bill into law, are working on a congressional bill to put the kibosh on any future expansion of the Piñon Canyon training area.

In addition, a coalition of ranchers filed a suit in a Denver federal court on Tuesday to demand that the Army provide an environmental impact assessment of increased training activity on the existing Piñon Canyon site as well as the proposed expansion acreage.

Judge Richard Matsch stated that he would consider the impact on the existing site, but not the expansion area because that remains undecided.

Ritter’s decision also earned praise from individuals and organizations throughout the state.

“We are very pleased that Governor Ritter has signed this legislation into law to help eliminate a back door approach that could have been used to expand Piñon Canyon,” said Lon Robertson, head of the Piñon Canyon Coalition.

“We have held the expansion off by staying together as a community, but the struggle is far from over,” he said.

“We are grateful to Governor Ritter for his courageous decision to stand up for Piñon Canyon’s beleaguered ranchers against the Army and local politicians who failed to defend Colorado’s best interests,” said Michael Huttner, founder of the advocacy organization.

“These property owners have been living in limbo for years while the Army has played games with their future,” asserted Huttner.

“This most recent battle over Piñon Canyon also revealed Colorado politicians were more interested in currying favor with the military lobby than doing right by the people of this state,” he said, singling out former Congressman Scott McInnis for criticism.

McInnis, a Republican candidate for governor, had urged Ritter to veto to the bill last month.

“Former ‘McLobbyist’ McInnis repeatedly attacked this bill, putting first his desire to win political support from El Paso County — virtually the only place in the state where the Army’s expansion at Piñon Canyon was favored,” Huttner said.

McInnis could not be reached for comment.

The bill was sponsored by Reps. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh, and Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, and Sen. Ken Kester, R-Las Animas.

“A massive expansion of the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site would have a devastating impact on families who owned, farmed and ranched this land for generations,” said McKinley. “Our local economies are dependent on the survival of industry in rural Colorado.”

“This bill will go a long way towards protecting the private property rights of ranchers in Southeast Colorado,” said Pace. “People should not feel threatened by their own government.”