We can all learn something from the battle over Piñon Cañon

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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.

2 Responses to We can all learn something from the battle over Piñon Cañon

  1. There are some profound insights expressed Mr Hazelhurst’s editorial. It’s true that the Pinon Canyon issue looks very different from the perspective of those in Colorado Springs than it does from the point of view of those of us living around the Pinon Canyon Maneuver site.

    I believe Mr. Hazlehurst when he says that “no one wants to see ranchers forcibly uprooted.” But he believes that it is necessary just the same. That really is the pivotal question; is it necessary? We believe that it is more a matter of convenience to Fort Carson and economic advantage to certain interests than it a matter of military necessity.

    And I appreciate it that he acknowledges that those of us who oppose the expansion make a distinction between “the troops” and “the bureaucrats” within the Department of the Army in Washington. We wish both the soldiers and the people of Colorado Springs health, safety and prosperity.

    Mr. Hazelhurst is also right on the mark when he observes that we “have long memories” and “haven’t forgotten how the Army handled the original PCMS acquisition.” We are hearing the exact same promises now that we heard back in the early 80s. We’re just not buying it that today’s Department of the Army is a kinder and more trustworthy lot.

    It’s true that we “pounced upon an Army memo” (actually a leaked map) that showed a plan to acquire most of southeastern Colorado. At first officials at Fort Carson called it a forgery. Then they called it “a brainstorming activity.” But in the last three and half years many such documents have surfaced which show the same huge plan to depopulate and militarize the entire southeastern corner of the state. (These Army documents can be viewed at http://www.pinoncanyon.com.) One leaked map can be easily explained away, but the cumulative effect of numerous official Army documents published over a period of four years is harder to dismiss.

    Mr. Hazelhurst is right that this issue transcends traditional partisan ideologies. Conservative Republicans have found common cause with anti-war Democrats; Property-rights advocates find themselves on the same side of this issue with environmentalists and historic preservationists.

    Mr Hazelhurst does well to invoke Dwight D. Eisenhower, an unlikely prophetic voice from the ’50s. Besides being a brilliant strategist, General Eisenhower was also an astute observer of society. He spoke the following profound words in 1961 but they are quite relevent to our times:

    “Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.

    This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence – economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

    In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

    We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

    from Eisenhower’s Farewell Address to the Nation
    January 17, 1961

    Doug Holdread
    May 22, 2009 at 2:03 pm

  2. John, it is not possible to reason with unreasonable people. There is no possibility of profering a compromise with the angry mob of ranchers in Las Animas County or politicos like John Salazar who pander to their type of obstructionism. They continue to place the straw-man argument of eminent domain in front of their obvious anti-military diatribes, even though the Army says it is interested in buying only from willing sellers.

    Dick Burns
    May 26, 2009 at 7:12 am