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Army weighs step to limit Colo. training site

Aug. 13, 2013 - 09:36PM   |  
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PUEBLO, COLO. — The Army said Tuesday it will consider cancelling one of several clearances that Fort Carson would need to expand a training site in southeastern Colorado.

Assistant Army Secretary Katherine Hammack said she will consider revoking a waiver to a moratorium on land acquisition that the Army granted to Fort Carson in early 2007. She said the review will take three to six months.

Hammack announced the review during a meeting in Pueblo with Sen. Mark Udall and southeastern Colorado community leaders.

The Army has insisted for several years it no longer plans to expand the 365-square-mile Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site, and Congress has imposed a series of one-year bans on funding for expansion.

But ranchers around the site say the waiver makes their futures so uncertain that banks are sometimes reluctant to loan them money for fear the Army might take over their land.

Revoking the waiver “puts up another huge barrier to clear” if the Army wants to renew its drive to expand the site, said Udall, who gave Hammack a letter asking for the cancellation.

In addition to the waiver, the Army would need both authorization and funding from Congress.

“This waiver is the thorn,” said Paula Ozzello of the Southern Colorado Environmental Council, a watchdog group that follows Pinon Canyon developments.

“We all know it. Let’s get it off the table,” she told Hammack.

In recent years the Army has proposed, and then withdrawn, plans to expand Pinon Canyon. It argued more space was needed to adequately train large units of soldiers with advancing military equipment and weapons technologies that require longer ranges before those soldiers deploy abroad for combat.

Ranchers say expansion would take too much of their land, and that heavy Army use is degrading the region’s environment. They also say the uncertainty over the possibility of expansion makes it difficult to make business decisions and preparations.

Gary Hill, a Las Animas County commissioner whose ranch abuts the training site, told Hammack she faces considerable mistrust.

“The Army has made a lot of agreements and they keep coming back and breaking them,” he said.

Hill said later those broken promises included economic benefits for southeastern Colorado, such as military contracts for the training site, which never materialized.

He said the Army also violated its pledge to let parts of the site recover before they were used again. In a recent exercise, the Army used the entire site, Hill said.

Hammack said Pinon Canyon is vital to Army training, but as the armed forces scale back and budget cuts take hold, commanders are willing to consider revoking the waiver and leaving Pinon Canyon at its current size for the foreseeable future.

She said that could change as the Army’s needs change, however.

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