Gov. Bill Ritter’s decision to sign a bill forbidding the state to sell land to the Army for the purpose of expanding the Pinon Canon maneuver site was, despite the howls of protest from Springs politicians, utterly predictable.
To us in El Paso County, the expansion seems reasonable, even mandatory. This nation is at war on two fronts, and we might soon be opening a de facto third front in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Our overtaxed and overstretched military needs every bit of support that we can give – and the least we can do is to accept the Army’s decision that expansion is necessary, and get on with it.
Of course, no one wants to see ranchers forcibly uprooted from land that their families have owned for a century or more, but as we in El Paso County have argued, that probably won’t happen. The Army’s offers will be more than generous, allowing ranchers to relocate elsewhere if they so choose. Moreover, once those offers are on the table, enough ranchers will accept them to make moot the question of condemnation.
But as reasonable as our arguments for expansion might seem, that’s not the way things look to the rest of the state.
Residents of southeastern Colorado have long memories, and they haven’t forgotten how the Army handled the original PCMS acquisition. Ranchers were paid a fraction of what they thought their land was worth, and the economic benefits that were suppose to flow to the area never materialized. The Army established no permanent facilities, bought nothing locally and the land disappeared from the tax rolls, depriving already strapped local governments of property tax revenue.
Area ranchers, who before the original acquisition were apolitical conservatives, largely uninterested in state or national issues, became organized, politically sophisticated and devastatingly effective.
They pounced upon an Army memo that, very early in the process, made it appear that the Army intended to acquire most of southeastern Colorado, literally wiping it off the map. Ranches, towns, farms, schools, wildlife habitat, nationally protected grasslands – all gone. The Army, it seemed, wanted an area larger than Delaware for reasons that it would not, or could not, articulate.
The ranchers, and their supporters throughout Colorado, seized the high ground. Using tactics and strategy that George Patton might have admired, they took the fight to the enemy, and chose the field of battle.
Brave defenders of freedom? Our troops – yes! But not these greedy, callous, overreaching, lying bureaucrats, who care nothing for the very values that make America great. What about property rights? What about the fundamental right of people to live their lives as they choose, especially these hard-working, patriotic Americans who have given so much and have asked for so little?
Those arguments are emotional and powerful. They find support from traditional Republicans, for whom property rights are sacrosanct, from apolitical folks who treasure Colorado’s traditional ranching communities and from everyone who regards the often overblown plans of the federal government with suspicion and/or disdain.
And there’s a nasty little subtext to all this as well.
Who benefits from the expansion?
If you ask Rep. Doug Lamborn, or El Paso County Commissioner Jim Bensberg or Mayor Lionel Rivera, they’ll say that everyone does. They’ve pointed out time and again that Fort Carson is one of the state’s most important employers – pumping billions of dollars into the state’s economy, and that Colorado lawmakers cannot afford to jeopardize the Mountain Post.
But that’s not what the voters who turned Colorado into a blue state believe. They believe that Fort Carson isn’t going anywhere, that the expansion is just overkill, and that its sole beneficiaries are the residents of Colorado Springs.
Many Colorado residents look upon us as the rest of America looks upon Wall Street bankers. We’re seen as greedy, hard-nosed, stream-polluting, water-stealing, climate change-denying, developer-coddling, Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights-writing religious fanatics who care nothing about the common good.
Outside the boundaries of El Paso County, few wish us well – and many are glad to see us take it on the chin. That’s why the bill swept through the legislature with bipartisan support, and that’s why Ritter signed it – the politicians were doing the will of their constituents.
Meanwhile, our local politicos and business leaders ought to just shut up and regroup, rather than indulge themselves in name-calling and complaining.
You lost a battle. You were outmaneuvered, out-generaled and forced into a humiliating retreat. Now’s the time for understanding and introspection, not foolish blustering. That means going back to school and learning from the greats.
For the Army: forget whatever you learned at the War College. Study the career of last century’s greatest general – Dwight D. Eisenhower, who knew how to lead fractious commanders and difficult allies to victory in World War II.
For civilians: forget the quarrelsome politics of our time. Study the career of last century’s most skilful politician, who extricated our country from an unwinnable war and built the interstate highway system – President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Be like Ike – and get it done!
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.