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Pinon Canyon Expansion Fight Nearing End

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(credit: army.mil)

(credit: army.mil)

DENVER (AP) – The Army on Monday took another step back from its one-time plan to expand a large training site in southeastern Colorado, drawing praise from area residents who said the move gives them some certainty about their future for the first time in years.

The Army said it will ask the secretary of defense to cancel a permit the Army got in 2007 to expand the 365-square-mile Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site.

The move came after months of pressure from Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who announced the Army’s decision.

Army leaders have insisted in recent years they no longer wanted to expand the site, and Congress has imposed a series of one-year bans on expansion funding. But the 2007 permit – actually a waiver from a moratorium on acquiring more land – remained in place.

Ranchers said the waiver left their futures uncertain and made banks reluctant to loan them money for fear the Army would take their land.

Much of that uncertainty is now gone, said Gary D. Hill, a Las Animas County commissioner and rancher whose land abuts the training site.

“I think part of the dark cloud has been removed that we were living under for the past six or seven years,” said Hill, who has been critical of the Army in the past.

Paula Ozzello of the Southern Colorado Environmental Council, a watchdog group that follows Pinon Canyon developments, said she believes the expansion fight is over.

“It was the best news we have heard in a really long time,” she said. “Today lifted a lot of mistrust that we had for the Army.”

Pinon Canyon is used by soldiers from Fort Carson, an infantry post about 125 miles to the north. The Army once argued it needed more space to train large units of soldiers with advancing weapons and technology that required longer ranges.

On Monday, Assistant Army Secretary Katherine Hammack said it a statement that with the Army reducing its troop numbers, it needs less land to train.

Udall said negotiations with the Army had ups and downs but the ending was good.

“I do want to be clear that no one was waving a white flag,” he said. “This was mutually beneficial to everyone.”

Pinon Canyon is important to the Army because it has the right size and terrain for realistic training, and its proximity to Fort Carson holds down transportation costs, Udall said.

Ozzello said her group will continue to work with the Army on limiting environmental damage at Pinon Canyon so the existing dimensions fill the military’s needs for years. Hill said he still wants the Army to make good on previous promises he said were made to contract with local businesses for services so the region benefits from the site.

“I’d really like to go back to being neighbors (with the Army) again and not just worry about my future,” Hill said. “And it’s not just my future. It’s my community and the county’s future.”

- By Dan Elliott, AP Writer

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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