Now that the Army has chosen Fort Carson to host a new Combat Aviation Brigade, nearly everyone is heralding it as a boon to Colorado Springs' economy and the nation's security.
U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, holding court with local media Monday, called it "an exciting day for Colorado Springs" and noted the CAB will bring $224 million in base construction projects in 2012 alone, with 2,700 troops and their families to begin arriving in 2013.
But others aren't thrilled. Several government agencies that guard the environment have questions about plans to increase the number of helicopters from the current 24 to 137, knowing they'll make some number of daily flights over national forest land.
Moreover, an Army investigator has raised questions about whether high-altitude training on rugged mountainsides is even necessary. The investigator looked into a June 2010 crash here and concluded that the training involves "unrealistic, non-mission-focused tasks."
Noting that Carson already is the state's second-largest employer, Lamborn says the brigade will bring jobs, in turn adding more local and state tax collections. "This hits our economy at a good time," he says.
Mike Kazmierski, head of the Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corp., issued a statement calling the CAB arrival "great news" and an "economic boost." He also says the CAB makes Carson's 4th Infantry Division more resistant to future budget cuts.
Brian Binn, military affairs president with the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, notes the 4th ID has been the only Army division without a CAB. He also pegs the military construction money coming our way to $700 million over several years.
But Bill Sulzman, a pacifist who created an opposition group called "Stop the Whop Whop," questions whether Carson's economic benefit is what it's cracked up to be. Sulzman argues that after initial construction, which will generate hundreds of temporary jobs, the CAB might not mean an ongoing bonanza.
New residents will pay sales tax off-base, but the Post Exchange doesn't charge sales taxes. The Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments estimated $50 million was spent there from October 2008 to September 2009, which translates to $1.5 million in state sales tax revenue lost, and $500,000 lost by both the county and the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority.
Likewise, materials purchased to build Fort Carson facilities won't be subject to county sales or use tax.
Then there's housing. Because the post is on federal land, no property taxes are paid on its 3,060 living units, owned by Balfour Beatty Communities, which is held by London-based Balfour Beatty. The company collects millions of dollars annually from Army housing allowances at Carson, only a portion of which stays here. Those units, about 1,200 of which have been built since 1999 under the military's privatization policy, are 96 percent occupied, and it's likely additional housing units will be built for the CAB.
Lynn Rivera, senior community manager for Balfour Beatty Communities at Carson, notes in an e-mail that Balfour Beatty employs local folks and uses local subcontractors, suppliers and vendors, "all of which contribute to the economic growth in the local community."
Any economic benefit might be offset, eventually, by the loss of other units. Budget constraints could force the Army to make sacrifices to fund the CAB, says Chris Hellman, an expert in military planning and policy, national security spending, base closures, and major weapons systems with the National Priorities Project, of Northampton, Mass.
In addition to construction spending, the Army will need to buy new aircraft for the CAB, says Hellman. Apaches cost $35 million each; Blackhawks, $19 million, and Chinooks, $29 million. "Will they have to cut other things to do it? Yes, they will," Hellman says.
Another casualty, some fear, will be the environment. Concerns range from noise pollution to disturbance of nesting falcons. Several government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, deem the Army's environmental examination "inadequate" and "incomplete."
But impact is hard to estimate when it's unclear how many flights to expect. Carson's garrison commander, Col. Robert McLaughlin, estimates the CAB will fly 3,000 missions annually, only slightly more than last year's 2,700, many of which were flown by visiting units from elsewhere. "We expect the visiting units will decrease quite a bit," he says.
Another fuzzy concept is where the choppers will fly. The Army's 2007 Environmental Assessment for high-altitude helicopter training in forest land states: "There are no sites either on Fort Carson or Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site that meet requirements for this training in terms of elevation and associated topography."
But Michael Amodeo, spokesman for Sen. Michael Bennet, who hailed the CAB decision along with Lamborn and Sen. Mark Udall, says, "According to the Army, CAB training will take place on existing land at the PCMS and within Fort Carson."
It's assumed, though, that helicopters will fly over the mountains, because the chance to train in high-altitude, mountainous settings — like Afghanistan's terrain — has been stated repeatedly as a chief reason Carson should get the CAB. Yet, the Army claims in environmental documents that adding 113 helicopters will cause no change in use of national forest land.
That doesn't track for the Forest Service. In a Dec. 15 letter to the Army, the Forest Service says the increase requires more environmental analysis of forest and Piñon Canyon impacts, adding, "The use of the forests for training must be balanced with other uses."
Should push come to shove between agencies, Hellman says, "It would be hard for me to imagine that [the Department of Defense] wouldn't get what they wanted, once they make the national security argument."
Why is it so crucial to train in high-altitude, mountainous settings? An Army investigator says it's not.
In a report on a June 2010 Apache crash west of Fort Carson at 12,200 feet, which injured two soldiers, the investigator noted, "There are few, foreseeable mission requirements in the theater of Afghanistan which would require Army reconnaissance and attack rotary wing aircraft to land to pinnacles and ridgelines at high altitudes — even in the event of an emergency."
The investigator, whose name is redacted, even cited the training program as a reason for the crash. Col. McLaughlin, contacted Tuesday, said he wasn't familiar with the report and referred questions to the Army.
Hellman says the Apache isn't a rescue vehicle, so it's hard to imagine using it to land in the Afghan mountains.
Any reconsideration of that training would appease some residents who commented during the Army's environmental impact process last year. Larry and Phyllis Stites wrote that Fort Carson is big enough without the CAB. "It will have a detrimental effect on this whole area," they wrote, citing noise and impacts on forests and Piñon Canyon. "We are contemplating moving out of this area if this expansion is to take place."
But Lamborn, when asked about such concerns, says people eventually will realize that the area "has a lot more to gain than any inconvenience from noise."