By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2007
WALSENBURG, Colo. -- Herman Moltrer returned from Vietnam to be a cattle rancher on the broad shortgrass prairie that stretches as far as the eye can see in southern Colorado. The rugged work earned him a living and a little something extra for his soul, but now he fears he may have to sell his land, at someone else's price.
The U.S. Army wants 418,000 acres of private ranch land to triple the size of its Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site, a training area considered suitable -- some would say essential -- for preparing American warriors to do battle in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The 1,000-square-mile facility would be 15 times the size of the District.
Several dozen ranchers and members of 15 county commissions that voted to oppose the project find themselves pitted against the Pentagon and Colorado business interests in a struggle over property rights, personal heritage and the contested priorities of national security.
Amid countless conversations around Colorado dinner tables about the potential for an economic boom or a government betrayal, experts on the environment, archaeology and paleontology are registering their concerns that the land will suffer. Both chambers of Congress voted against funding further work next year, one skirmish in a fight not nearly over.
Colorado may not be alone. Military planners foresee a need for 5 million more acres for training facilities by 2011.
In Piñon Canyon, where prehistoric dinosaur tracks lie near a surviving section of the 1800s-era Santa Fe Trail, the Army sees an opportunity when other training grounds are overtaxed by the demands of war. The move is also part of a long-term reorganization of the armed forces.
To Colorado business leaders, the expansion would help consolidate and enhance the state's growing role as a military hub: It is home to Fort Carson, the Air Force Academy and the U.S. Northern Command.
But the government's appeal to patriotism when ranchers could be forced to sell property that has been in their families for generations leaves many landowners cold. They remain skeptical of the claims of national security and frustrated by the lack of answers.
They are also infuriated by what they consider callousness among proponents of the expansion, such as the comment from state Sen. John P. Morse, a Colorado Springs Democrat, that "patriotism is about accepting your cost, even when it is disproportionate."
"It's rude. It ain't right. It's not American," said Stan White, who could lose more than two-thirds of the 9,000 acres he ranches in Walsenburg. "We take our military and our country very seriously, but we're up against something we can't get ahold of. If they get this done, it's a national disgrace."
The land under discussion is an arid plateau that occupies a sparsely populated slice of Colorado near the New Mexico border. It lies alongside 235,000 acres acquired by the Army in the early 1980s. The open spaces provide rambling room for 67-ton tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles to practice maneuvers within a few hours of Fort Carson, home to a dozen Army units.
According to the Army, the training ground needs to grow for two reasons. The first is that training centers in Fort Irwin, Calif., and Fort Polk, La., are operating at capacity. The second is that Fort Carson was approved to receive two new brigades, totaling as many as 10,000 soldiers, in the 2005 base realignment process.
More soldiers means a need for more space nearby to train them, a problem that extends beyond Colorado.
In a September speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) said the Army believes it has a current deficit of 2 million acres needed for training, a figure expected to grow by 2011 to 5 million acres, or 7,812 square miles -- an area about the size of New Jersey.
Allard pointed out that Colorado politicians and business leaders lobbied hard to lure the new troops and the military's spending power. He opposed an amendment, which later passed, cutting off funds to study the Piñon Canyon expansion. He said the issue was too important "to the men and women who are fighting for our freedoms around the world."
Brian A. Binn, president of the military affairs committee of the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, said the benefits to the state economy and national defense are clear. If the ranchers triumph and the training site is not created, he added, other states would be all too willing to accept the troops and the business.
"We have to look sometimes at what's better for the national defense, the greater good," Binn said. "It is a national security issue. The men and women of our armed services deserve nothing less."
Bob Hill, a rancher forced to sell his land to the Army 25 years ago, said caustically, "I find the city people are really patriotic with our property."
When word surfaced about the Army's intentions, the ranchers mobilized quickly, forming a coalition called Not One More Acre! They lobbied 15 county commissions to pass resolutions opposing the Piñon Canyon expansion and won votes in the Colorado legislature and in Congress.
Assembling the maneuver site from reluctant landowners is not "the right thing to do for the future of our families or for the future of the country," said Lon Roberson, the ranchers' leader. "They can get the national defense taken care of with their own inventory of land."
Tom Warren, a civilian responsible for Fort Carson's environmental performance, oversees the early steps toward the proposed expansion. Discussing the intensity of the debate and the hard feelings, he said, "I've been here about 25 years -- going on 20,000, it feels like."
The Army needs the land and would be a good steward, Warren said, adding that the project must go through preliminary stages of planning and approval on environmental, economic, social, military and political grounds. If Congress approves studies in the 2009 budget year, it would still take years, he said.
"There's a great deal of change going on in the world, whether it be the global war on terrorism or the current deployments into Afghanistan and Iraq. There's a change going on in the Army, a transformation," Warren said. "We're not talking about this war. We're talking about whatever may come down the road in the future."
Some landowners have told Colorado politicians that they are willing to sell. But a large majority apparently want the project killed before it gains momentum.
"My family came here in 1872, so we're not Johnnies-come-lately. My wife and I have a brand-new house, 2,000 square feet. I have 800 acres of good grass, 40 acres irrigated, two miles of pipeline," said Abel Benevides, a 35-year Army veteran. "I was in the military. So was my sister, my aunt, my cousin. I'm doing my part. I salute the flag."
Benevides had spent time as the command sergeant major at Piñon Canyon. He sees no good reason for expansion, feels deeply suspicious of the military's approach and fears the worst. Many ranchers cite military maps that reflect talk of much greater expansion.
"They're going to lie. They're going to come up with a reason," Benevides predicted. "That's when I get my chains and tie myself to a lamppost. They're going to have to take me off my land."
Jim Montoya, a Democrat who chairs Las Animas's county commission, treats with skepticism assurances that the military will bring new prosperity to the windblown corner of the state, whose elevation is about 6,000 feet.
Montoya said he believes that lost ranches would not be replaced by a reliable economic generator, causing shops and businesses that serve the ranching community to wither. Taking land off the property rolls would also hurt public schools and hospitals, he said.
"In 1982, they promised . . . business would improve. It has affected the city, but the other way," said Montoya, who ranches and runs a family hair salon. "You throw a rock into the water, and it keeps rippling on down."
There is a nearly universal feeling among ranchers that the Pentagon would not pay top dollar and might force landowners to sell their property using the power of eminent domain, a dirty phrase in these parts.
Kennie Gyurman, forced to sell 5,000 acres north of Trinidad in the 1980s, moved into a new house he built on the remains of a parcel assembled by his grandfather, uncle and father beginning in 1915. He and his wife intend to keep it out of federal hands.
"We're a small band of landholders, and they think they can walk all over us," Gyurman said. "It won't be so easy for them this time."