Pinon Canyon foes blast Army's plans for helicopter missions

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Lately, ranchers and community leaders in southeastern Colorado are feeling a bit like the battle-weary Michael Corleone of The Godfather Part III. Every time you think you're out, they pull you back in -- "they" being the Pentagon planners seeking more intense use of the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site, a 235,000-acre training area for Fort Carson troops in the heart of the region that's long been a source of contention.

As detailed in last year's feature "The War Next Door," the Army's acquisition of the property in the 1980s touched off a bitter legal battle over condemnation proceedings, followed by even more raucous lawsuits and politicking over hush-hush plans to expand the site, despite official assurances to the contrary.

After expansion opponents uncovered documents indicating that the Army had plans to eventually acquire up to 10,000 square miles of Colorado, the state's congressional leaders were able to craft a moratorium on the PCMS expansion plans. The Army responded by increasing maneuvers on the existing site, but in 2009, U.S. Senior District Judge Richard Matsch ruled that the Army's environmental impact study was inadequate and the proposed build-up was illegal.

Not exactly discouraged by all these killjoys, military leaders have come back with a plan for a Combat Aviation Brigade that would be based at Fort Carson and train at PCMS. Last week, the Army unveiled an environmental study with a finding of "no significant impact" at PCMS from proposed training exercises involving the brigade, which includes 113 helicopters.

The military is holding hearings this week seeking comment on the study, and they're getting an earful. At last night's gathering in Trinidad, opponents questioned the thoroughness of the study and the damage a hundred helicopters and other aircraft can do to the fragile grasslands of the area; check out this account in the Pueblo Chieftain.

The PCMS plan, combined with an Air Force proposal to conduct intensive low-altitude training flights over much of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, leaves some residents of the area talking about being in the crosshairs of the military-industrial complex. Here's an interesting take on the affected region from longtime PCMS activists Not One More Acre!:

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Another meeting is scheduled for Otero Junior College in La Junta tonight (6-8 p.m.) and a third on Thursday in Colorado Springs at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Comments can also be e-mailed to environmental specialist Cathryn Kropp before February 2. Her address is Cathryn.L.Kropp.civ@mail.mil.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Pinon Canyon 'Working Together' event teaches grassroots lesson in military-expansion battle."

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1 comments
Doug Holdread
Doug Holdread

Cannon Air Force Base's Low Altitude Tactical Navigation proposal (LATN), combined with the Combat Aviation Brigade at Pinon Canyon adds up to a move by the military to claim rights that are not theirs, all over northern NM and southern CO. There is a war going on, literally "beneath the radar" over who owns the sky. The battle is between the energy companies and the military; that's where the whole thing might actually pop up on the radar of people like Senators Udall and Bennet. As big and powerful as the military-industrial complex is, the energy industry is almost as big and powerful and at this point, more politically correct. Alternative energy is a high priority in terms of jobs, climate change and even national security. The thing that concerns me is that it appears that the two power-brokers, the military and the energy corps seem to be dividing up the spoils between themselves, leaving surface owners, who legally own the super-adjacent airspace, up to 500 feet completely out of equation. My hope is that the DoD will get greedy and the energy interests will make enough noise that the legislators and the media will pay attention.

But these gluttons may have finally bitten off a bit too much. Pinon Canyon expansion would would happen in a relatively remote corner of the state, creating a mere 17,000 refuges, according to Army documents. But this pincer move by the Army and Air Force would put the squeeze on communities all the way from Albuquerque to Grand Junction. I anticipate a cacophony of discontented voices filling the super-adjacent sky.

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