On The Range of Piñon Canyon

Property rights or jobs?

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

PIÑON CANYON — Their land is more than property for cattle ranchers in southern Colorado. It’s their way of life.

These modern-day cowboys work land passed from one generation to the next with the hope that the weather will hold, that strong grass will grow and that their cattle will make it to market.

It’s not an easy life.

Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, rides horseback in Piñon Canyon on Sunday. Carroll joined Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh, and a handful of southern Colorado ranchers for a daylong trail ride along the rim of Piñon Canyon to examine the scope of a possible Army expansion of its maneuvering site. The current site encompasses 235,000 acres.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Today’s ranchers face many of the same challenges that confronted their ancestors 100 years ago. Fences still need mending, horses still need shoeing and cattle must be fed — no matter whether there’s a blizzard or a heat wave.

However, the southern Colorado ranchers whose land is adjacent to Fort Carson’s U.S. Army training site in Piñon Canyon face a unique challenge.

In the 1980s, the Army built what is known today as the Piñon Canyon Maneuvering Site. The Army uses the 235,000 acres it now owns a few months out of the year to build trenches so that soldiers in tanks can train on the land.

In order to secure the current site, the Army implemented the largest use of eminent domain against U.S citizens in the nation’s history. Not surprisingly, the land grab left a bad taste with the ranchers who remained.

Owners of the land that surrounds the current training site support the military and believe their patriotism runs more than skin deep. But they are finding themselves at odds with the Army, which, over the past few years, has made several attempts to condemn more land to enable expansion of the maneuvering site. The exact amount of land the Army wants for expansion is among debate.

Documents dating back to 2004 suggest that the training site expansion was initially visualized to include nearly 7 million acres. When property owners and members of Colorado’s congressional delegation raised concern over that suggestion, the Army scaled back its project to include only 418,000 acres. After drawing new fire, in 2008 the Army again reduced the size of the project — this time to include only 100,000 acres.

But for the cowboys of southern Colorado, who would be pushed off their land and forced to find other places to graze their herds, even one acre is too many.

“I bought my place 20 years ago knowing that they said they would never expand,” rancher Tony Hass told The Colorado Statesman. “If I knew there was an expansion imminent then, I would have never bought there.”

Hass, who runs 450 head of cattle on 12,000 acres near the Piñon Canyon Maneuvering Site, is somewhat of a rarity in these parts. Unlike many of the ranchers in the area whose families have owned their land for generations, Hass worked for years to save enough money to buy his property and pursue what he calls the American dream.

“I have been a night janitor at the school. I worked my ranch during the day. And, on my off days, when I could squeeze one, I would haul hay,” Hass said. “I have had to work three jobs to make my ranch pay, pursuing that American dream. We all want to own our own place, raise our own product and run our own business. And now for (the Army) to want to take it away — it’s pretty hard.”

Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh, and area ranchers peer into one of Piñon Canyon’s deepest chasms.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Fear of what could happen if the Army gets its way can be heard in the voices of Hass and other ranchers as they talk about the expansion. But, unlike decades ago when most people ignored the Army’s condemnation of Piñion Canyon, these landowners have banded together and are vowing to fight the Army every inch of the way.

To that end, a group of ranchers formed an opposition group called “Not 1 More Acre!” to fight the expansion and to lobby the Legislature. As a result of their efforts, the 2009 session passed House Bill 1317, which prohibited the sale of any state land near Piñon Canyon to the Army. The legislation, which enjoyed broad bipartisan support, was signed by Gov. Bill Ritter this spring.

But not everyone believes an Army expansion in Piñon Canyon would be a bad thing. Business leaders in El Paso County, which includes Colorado Springs and Fort Carson, and a handful of politicians have advocated for expansion on the grounds that it will bring jobs and tax revenue to help bring the state out of the recession.

The same proponents say the current site is too small to handle the increasing number of troops being stationed at Fort Carson and warn that Colorado risks losing future defense contracts to other states if it fails to make the Army feel welcome.

Property rights or jobs?

Although many Republican Statehouse members supported HB 1317, the main opposition the state’s effort to stop the expansion is found among some menbers of the GOP. Sixth District U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and 5th District U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn have promoted the Army’s case in Washington, D.C., and Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis has chosen to make the issue a major focus of his campaign for the nomination.

During an extended Q&A with The Statesman in August, McInnis said if he’s elected governor next year, he would do everything in his power to overturn HB 1317 and oppose any other effort to make it more difficult for the Army to expand on state land.

“(Ritter) ought to be doing whatever he needs to do to encourage them to come here and not go to the state of Texas or anywhere else,” McInnis said at the time. “If I was him, I’d immediately admit that I made a mistake by opposing the expansion. That bill was not about property rights. That bill was (to oppose) expansion of the base. The fact is, that bill is a slap in the face of the Army. It was not necessary. It was poorly timed.”

But for the ranchers in southern Colorado and the politicians who voted in favor of the bill, the issue is absolutely about property rights. They say any gain to the state economy must be weighed against what citizens lose when they surrender their property rights.

“For (McInnis) to say this is not about property rights suggests he doesn’t understand the issue of Piñon Canyon,” said state Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, who voted in favor of HB 1317 and who is challenging McInnis for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. “The goal isn’t about stopping expansion. My goal is to take condemnation off the table and then let willing sellers and willing buyers do their thing.”

The sprawling landscape near Piñon Canyon as seen through an old cattle fence.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Because the Army has historically been less than forthcoming with information about the proposed expansion and because it initially stated it was going to take the land it required through eminent domain, it’s hard to ignore the property rights issue surrounding the discussion, Penry said.

“Fort Carson is absolutely critical, as is the economy of El Paso County,” Penry said. “There are no two ways around it. It’s vital to Colorado. But this is where leadership requires rolling up the sleeves and accommodating two sets of really important values: Property rights and bringing new jobs to the state.”

Penry said, if elected governor, he would continue working to find a compromise with the Army, a compromise that would begin with taking condemnation off the table and then working to find a way to allow the Army to purchase land it needs from willing landowners.

According to campaign spokesman Sean Duffy, McInnis, whose wife’s family owns a large cattle ranch on the Western Slope, agrees with Penry that a compromise should be brokered, but believes HB 1317 was a slap in the face to the Army.

“This is very personal and a very emotional issue,” Duffy said. “Scott just doesn’t see it as a zero-sum game where you either preserve ranching or expand military jobs. What he is saying is, if you can find any way possible to expand the military and aerospace sectors while helping preserve the ranching land, then we should do it. He doesn’t see this as an ‘either or.’”

If the Army is to be believed, condemnation already is off the table. After the barrage of complaints from ranchers and congressional members clouded the issue in recent years, the Army said any future expansion would be onto land offered by willing sellers. It also said it is willing to enter into long-term leases with other area landowners.

And, some politicians, including Coffman, say that because the military has said it will not use condemnation, the current choice between property rights and more jobs is a red herring.

“The U.S. Army has taken condemnation off the table, so it is a false choice to juxtapose individual property rights against the economic benefits and new jobs that will come with PCMS expansion,” Coffman said. “The Army has long been an important member of the Colorado community, and we should not turn our back on them. We must not overlook the enormous economic development implications that PCMS expansions will have for all of Colorado.”

Furthermore, Coffman warned, if the state continues on its current path, it could lose more than just future jobs.

“If Colorado is unwilling to show the Army they are an important member of our community, there are countless other states chomping at the bit to help the Army meet its training needs and receive the associated billions of dollars and thousands of jobs,” he said.

Lamborn, who represents El Paso County in Congress, agrees.

“Colorado cannot afford to jeopardize the huge economic stake it has in our U.S. military,” Lamborn said. “Fort Carson is Colorado’s second largest employer and brings more than $1.64 billion to the state’s economy each year. It has a current active duty component of over 20,000, which produces additional jobs, including service, retail, construction and defense-related jobs. A good part of the money finds its way to the state treasury from income and sales taxes.”

But ranchers like Hass say the Army’s past failure to negotiate in good faith precludes a relationship of trust.

“It’s been a lie since day one with them,” Hass said. “When they first came here (in the 1980s) they said they weren’t going to expand, and now they’re trying to. They said they weren’t going to use live fire (training exercises), and now they do. They said they weren’t going to take away our land, and they tried.”

A short history of Piñon Canyon

Piñon Canyon is rich in history and prehistory. Its acreage includes thousands of dinosaur tracks, ancient rock dwellings that include hieroglyphics and many Native American campsites. In addition, some of the state’s original homesteads were in the Purgatory River Basin.

Beyond the historical artifacts, though, is a robust and thriving agricultural industry.

Piñon Canyon is one of the largest beef producing areas in the world, said Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh, who noted that the area’s agriculture brings the state thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue.

“Agricultural is at the heart of what we are,” said McKinley, who has led the legislative fight at the Capitol to protect the area from the Army’s expansion. “People say, ‘What do those ranchers need all of that land for? Why can’t they give some of it up?‘

“Well, why don’t you give up some of what you’ve got? You don’t need it all. If we start taking people’s land down here, then it will never end. We will take people’s land everywhere.”

The ranchers of southern Colorado are deeply embedded in the region’s history. Most of them will tell you they are the fourth, fifth or even sixth generation of their family to run cattle on their land. They can tell you what their grandfathers did to improve the soil in order to grow better grass and can point to ditches their fathers dug for pipeline to transport water.

The cowboys who live here don’t just own the land they work. They feel a deep, intrinsic connection to it.

Rancher Stan White is the fourth generation of his family to run cattle on his 15,000 acre ranch near Piñon Canyon. His 24-year-old daughter and her husband recently began to run cattle on his ranch, and they’ll eventually take over his operation.

“It almost makes you want to cry, thinking about your children taking over like that,” White told The Statesman. “It makes a daddy real proud.”

And, despite the Army’s recent assurance that it will not use condemnation in order to expand, but instead will lease land from owners, ranchers such as White say they risk losing too much of their heritage if the expansion occurs.

“When the Army first came in here in the 1980s and condemned the land it has now, I didn’t pay much attention,” White said. “I was too young and too busy, I guess. But now we’re gearing up to fight this. We have too much to lose if we don’t.”

The fight could draw out for a long time to come. Even if the Army were to lease land instead of condemn it, ranchers worry about what would happen to the soil and the health of the region’s ecosystem.

Just as ranchers only graze cattle on a tract of land for a couple of months at a time in order to allow the grass and the soil to recover and grow strong again, the Army has previously said it would use the land on its training facility in similar ways to mitigate any environmental impact.

But early last month, the Army lost a federal court battle when U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch threw out an environmental impact study commissioned by the Army that was set to authorize year-round training, something ranchers say would destroy the landscape in ways that would be felt for generations. The ruling ordered the Army to be more specific about the extent of the training that might take place on the site and the damage it would incur on the fragile short-grass prairie.

Although the ruling seemed like a victory for ranchers, it also was a defeat. In addition to saying that the Army’s environmental impact study wasn’t sufficient, Matsch said the report “made it apparent the Army’s purposes will not be met without expansion.”

Let’s get down to politics

As with most controversies, the politics of the state and region have crept into the Piñon Canyon discussion.

The top of a cowboy hat being worn by a southern Colorado rancher is seen as a horse-drawn wagon navigates between two old structures near Piñon Canyon.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

The Colorado Congressional delegation, led by Rep. John Salazar, whose district includes Piñon Canyon, has passed amendments to defense spending bills that prohibit federal funding from being used to purchase land around Piñon Canyon. The amendments have been supported by Salazar and by Democratic U.S. Reps. Betsy Markey, Diana DeGette, Ed Perlmutter and Jared Polis, as well as Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet.

All seven say they’ll continue to oppose any Army expansion in Piñon Canyon.

“I cannot support taking land from my constituents, many of whom have been working the same land for generations,” Salazar said. “This year, at my request, Congress again included the annual funding ban in the Military Construction Appropriations bill to prohibit the Army from spending money on expansion. Despite my many requests, I remain unconvinced that the Army seriously considered any other alternative sites or provided adequate justification for expansion.”

Although most Coloradans seem to think that — for the near future, at least — any Army expansion in Piñon Canyon has been successfully stymied, the issue continues to live in the 2010 gubernatorial race.

Republican gubernatorial candidate McInnis has said he sees the expansion as a jobs issue. Penry, on the other hand, has said the former congressman’s “sudden interest” in Piñon Canyon is nothing more than a way to score political points in the Republican stronghold of Colorado Springs.

El Paso County has the largest bloc of registered Republican voters in the state, and support there is crucial to any statewide primary victory.

“He wants to make the false choice that those who don’t support the bill are against the military,” Penry said. “And he was in Washington for a long time, and he brings those kinds of talking points with him. But I will stand with private property owners until the end.

“Look, he wasn’t interested in this issue,” Penry said of McInnis. “He sat on the sidelines until three days before he announced he was running for governor. Then, all of sudden, he’s out there, throwing rocks at the rest of us who have been trying to solve this problem for years.”

McInnis’ campaign denied Penry’s claims and said their candidate is running on a platform that he believes in, which — in the case of Piñon Canyon — is creating more jobs and economic opportunity for El Paso County while helping the Army do a better job of protecting the country. When asked if opposing the expansion would bring any political benefit to McInnis in Colorado Springs, McInnis spokesman Duffy did not address the issue directly.

Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll points to his steed.
Photo by Jason Kosena
The Colorado Statesman

“We’re not looking it at that way,” Duffy said. “Scott has a personal view about this that he is very passionate about. He feels the state’s move this year to block the sale of public land is a public policy mistake, and he wants to talk about it with everyone, not just people in one region of the state.”

Duffy said McInnis spent two hours in the Piñon Canyon region recently talking with landowners about his position and why he feels expansion is the best economic move for the state.

“He’s not hiding behind his position,” Duffy said. “He’s not afraid to take the issue to people in the area. He wants to hear from them. He wants to listen to their concerns. But he also wants to make what he feels is the best policy decisions for the state of Colorado.”

Experts on the politics of the area, however, believe McInnis’ position on Piñon Canyon could help him in the GOP primary.

“More votes lay directly in supporting the Colorado Springs economy because there are certainly more potential votes among Republicans in El Paso County than there are in the immediate environment of Piñon Canyon,” said Robert Loevy, a professor of political science at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

“I think Mcinnis has made the wiser choice numerically,” Loevy continued. “If Mcinnis can succeed in energizing the Republican vote in El Paso County over Piñon Canyon, that could produce a lot of votes for him in what could be a very low visibility primary. Politically, I don’t see this as a bad play.”

And, even though McInnis runs the risk of alienating a large proportion of rural Colorado voters by supporting an issue that is seen by many as
“anti-private property rights,” there could still be room for him after the primary to mend those fences and win those votes before the general
election.

“What McInnis is doing right now with Piñon Canyon is a short-term strategy to win the primary,” said Gayle Berardi, professor of political science at Colorado State University in Pueblo. “But, in the long run, you would think that, perhaps, his position will moderate to win over Republicans in the southern part of the state and other rural areas that he could be losing right now. And, don’t forget, he has the option to do that after a primary. And it may, indeed, be a good political strategy to do so.”

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Jason@coloradostatesman.com