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Army might lose this battle


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Army vehicles already rumble at Pion Canyon. - OLIVER PARINI

In the eyes of most outsiders, the controversy over whether the Army should expand its Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site has been going on for three years or so. But those folks who own ranchland east of Walsenburg and Trinidad see a saga that began in the early 1980s, through good times and bad, Republican and Democratic administrations.

Now, suddenly, the Battle for Piñon Canyon may be nearing its end, or at least an impasse. And the Army, as determined as it has been, is not winning.

More news might be coming by Friday. I say might because it's possible the Army could ignore an April 10 deadline to answer fresh questions about its Piñon Canyon plans from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. We should note this isn't a military committee stepping into the fray. The same panel has been dealing with such issues as CEO bonuses and the mortgage crisis, as well as the rising problems (including deaths) caused by faulty electrical wiring at U.S. military facilities in Iraq.

Now it's not just Democratic Rep. John Salazar trying to protect property and constituents in his district. Salazar has been most effective in opposing the Army's plans, leading the way to a 383-35 House vote (later passed by the Senate) halting all expenses related to Piñon Canyon expansion. But the Army has basically ignored that moratorium, which started in January 2008 and continues in effect, and that's a big reason Congress is not pleased.

The latest questions ask the Army to explain its plans, projected costs, environmental assessments and other options. It sounds similar to what Salazar and other expansion opponents have been asking, except now it's the oversight committee's chairman, Rep. Ed Towns, D-N.Y., wanting answers.

Will the Army respond? And if so, how?

Part of the oversight committee's concern has arisen from a Government Accountability Office report in January, which indicated the Army's projected cost for acquiring more Piñon Canyon land would be far more than initially thought. The likely cost, which had been pegged at $280 an acre, has leaped to more than $500 an acre, meaning at least $50 million to buy the 100,000 additional acres most recently proposed.

It's been going on like this for the past two years, with the Army trying to recover from setback after setback. The Pentagon strategy has appeared to be simple: Keep pushing, and eventually the opponents will give up.

But they aren't, and, in fact, they've become more powerful. Salazar now has a spot on the House Appropriations Committee, which handles the military's purse strings, and he has made it clear he won't allow a cent of money for adding to Piñon Canyon.

First-term Democratic Rep. Betsy Markey, who unseated Republican Marilyn Musgrave in the district that includes some of southeastern Colorado, has become a vocal ally for the anti-expansion side (as was Musgrave). U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, unlike predecessor Wayne Allard, continues to oppose the Army's plans, as he did in the House. And Udall already is a member of the influential Senate Armed Services Committee.

Closer to home, the Colorado Legislature is working on a bill that would prohibit the Army from using state land (many such small parcels exist) to increase the size of the maneuver site. And the leader on that front is new state Rep. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, who already looks capable of rising to the top of the legislative ranks.

At some point, with all that opposition, you'd think the Army would admit its mistakes, back off and simply continue making the best use of its existing 370 square miles of training space in the Piñon Canyon area.

Granted, the U.S. Army doesn't like to surrender. But this time, it's the right choice.


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