Ranchers resist Army expansion plan
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By PETER ROPER
The Pueblo Chieftain
THATCHER, Colo. -- It's easy to see why Gary Hill loves his ranch.
From the shady courtyard of his small home, the rancher can see his horses lazily grazing on a hillside, the grass surprisingly lush for a late week in June. It's quiet and peaceful, except for the sounds of friends talking and complimenting his wife, Kathy, on the lunch they are enjoying under the shade trees.
It didn't look like a war-planning session, but it was. Because if you drive a few hundred yards east and top the rise, you can see the white water tower of the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site several miles away on U.S. Highway 350 -- a constant reminder that the Army is also a neighbor and now it wants Hill's 16,000-acre Hidden Valley Ranch and then some.
Holding up a map of the Army's planned 414,000-acre expansion, Hill recounted how he and his wife have worked to pay for their ranch and how his great-grandfather came to the grasslands in 1883. He points out how the Army took the family land when it first created the 238,000-acre Pinon Canyon training site in the late 1970s, forcing his brother, Bobbie, off his 7,000-acre spread.
Now Hill, along with his brother and about 60 other ranchers in the region, are back in the Army's sights, trying to keep their land in the face of the Pentagon's insistence that it needs a much bigger area for training the growing number of soldiers at Fort Carson.
"Now I'm going to bust up," Hill said, his voice choking as his eyes welled up. He paused to regain his composure. He was the fifth or sixth grown man to break down in tears on this particular day as they talked about what is at stake for their families in the battle over Pinon Canyon.
"For the past two years, we've had our head in a guillotine," Hill argued, referring to the first reports in 2005 that the Army was getting ready to reach for more acreage around Pinon Canyon.
The reason the 15 or so ranch families gathered this week -- at Hill's ranch, at Tony Hass's place, and at Craig Walker's River Canyon Ranch -- was to address what the Army has repeatedly told Colorado lawmakers in Washington, D.C.: that it can accomplish much of the planned expansion, particularly the 105,000 acres directly south of Pinon Canyon, by acquiring land from "willing sellers."
"That's just not true," said Hill, who is a Las Animas County commissioner, as well as a rancher. "We've talked to nearly every landowner in that southern parcel and there are no willing sellers."
Backing up Hill is Craig Walker, who recently purchased the River Canyon Ranch, a portion of which occupies more than half - about 60,000 acres - of the southern parcel. He also owns the 40,000-acre Bow & Arrow Ranch that the Army wants as part of the 303,000-acre western parcel.
"I don't buy cattle ranches to sell them," Walker told the Senate and House staffers who took part in a tour of ranches around Pinon Canyon. "I keep hearing that I am a willing seller. That is not correct. I've never spoken to anyone from the Army about my ranches."
Asked if the Army was lying when it told Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., and other members of the Colorado delegation that the southern parcel was obtainable from willing sellers, Walker stopped short of making that charge.
"I'm not going to say the Army is lying, but if they are saying my land is for sale, someone is misrepresenting the situation in Washington," Walker said.
Other landowners in the southern parcel - George Torres (6,500 acres), Bill Wilkerson (8,000 acres), Ed Gyurman (4,000 acres) and Abel Benavidez (800 acres) - said much of the same thing Wednesday. Their land is not for sale.
The ranchers emphasize the word "willing" when they refute the Army's claim because there is land for sale in the area, even in the southern parcel.
Trinidad's world-famous surgeon, the late Dr. Stanley Biber, had acquired some 80,000 acres of land in the area over his long career. His 26-year-old son, John, acknowledged that he needs to sell property - including the 14,000 acres he owns in the southern parcel - in order to pay inheritance taxes.
"But I don't want to sell it to the Army," the young man said, noting that his family is taxed at the highest estimated value of the land while the Army will pay the lowest possible price. Ironically, Biber was in the Army until his father's death when he came home to run the family business.
"I could end up having to sell my land to the government to pay taxes. I'm getting ripped off twice here,"' he said.
So when Hill tallies up all the landowners in the southern parcel, accounting for about 98,000 acres, he is blunt in saying there are no willing sellers.
"The Army keeps telling people that, but we thought you should see for yourselves," Hill told the congressional aides.
One reason the emotions run so deep over the Army's new plan is some of these ranch families have been through this before. The Gyurmans, Hills and others all lost land when the Army first came to Pinon Canyon. Many of the families have been on the land for several generations.
Ed Gyurman's father, Charles, lost 5,000 acres in the first expansion and now the son stands to lose the 4,000 acres he owns.
"This short grass country is ideal for raising cattle," he said, pointing out at the vast grassland. "They've whittled us down and whittled us down. It's hard to see something your family has worked so hard to build just taken away."
Bobbie Hill lost 5,000 acres in the creation of the training area and he fought the Army every step of the way. It was his parents' land. So it may seem surprising that he later went to work for the Army as the facilities manager at the maneuver site.
"That was my home, my family's land," he explained to the crowd of ranch families who had gathered in Tony Hass's front yard. Unlike others fighting the expansion, Hill gives the Army credit for trying to take care of the land in the current training area. But he bristles at the idea that he could lose the 7,000 acres he now owns in the western parcel, across U.S. 350 from the Pinon Canyon site.
"Do you believe that taking our land out of production will help fight terrorism?" he scoffed as other ranchers nodded. Getting angry, he said the Army's message that additional troops at Fort Carson would be an economic benefit to Pueblo and other communities amounted to little more than a bribe to support the expansion.
Hill said that during his time working at Pinon Canyon it became obvious the Army has even bigger plans for expansion than the 414,000-acre request. That's why the ranchers call the new Army plan "Phase One" - because they have another Army map that was leaked in 2005 showing the training area growing to encompass the entire southeastern corner of the state.
Fort Carson officials first denied that map's authenticity, then dismissed it as an out-of-date planning map. Ranchers opposed to the expansion think it is the Pentagon's long-range plan for their land.
"What they want is to make Pinon Canyon into another National Training Center," Bobbie Hill said, referring to the Army's huge training ground at Fort Irwin, Calif., in the Mojave Desert.
Mary Mincic and her late husband, Charles, had their 4,000 acres condemned by the Army 25 years ago.
"They told me we could stay until we found a new place," the 79-year-old widow said ruefully. "Then they told us we had to pay to stay in our own house. We ended up paying the Army $32,000 in rent before we moved."
Mrs. Mincic now owns 1,200 acres in the Army's new expansion zone.
"You think that's a fair trade," one rancher asked the congressional aides on the trip. "Giving up 4,000 acres to get 1,200?"
The ranchers understand that the final decision on whether the Army ultimately gets their land will be made in Washington, D.C., not on the grasslands around Pinon Canyon. That is why they wanted congressional aides, particularly from Allard's office and from Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar's office, to tour the land with them.
The local House members, Democratic Rep. John Salazar and Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, have already staked out a "no expansion" position - going so far as getting the House to approve an amendment to its version in the 2008 military construction appropriations bill that bans the expenditure of any money for the expansion next year.
Allard and Salazar, as senators, have much more clout, however, and could stop the expansion with a word, either together or separately. Of course, they also have a national defense obligation to listen to the Army's proposal. Allard, who is not running for re-election next year, has said he would like to see the Army go ahead next year with its initial studies on environmental and economic impacts - signaling a reluctance to endorse the Musgrave-Salazar amendment in the Senate version of the military construction bill.
As for Ken Salazar, he has told the Army that he cannot support any expansion unless the Army develops an economic assistance plan for the region, including basing at least one brigade - about 3,500 troops - in the Pinon Canyon area, to give an economic boost to Las Animas County.
The ranchers who oppose the expansion ridicule the idea that any kind of economic assistance could offset the loss of their land and livelihood.
"You can raise cattle on this grass or drive tanks on it," one rancher said Wednesday. "You can't raise cattle in the desert. But you can drive tanks there. That's where the Army should go."
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