On Feb. 24, snow blanketed Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site in southeastern Colorado. After it quickly melted into muck, a Fort Carson commander had to decide whether to continue the 2nd Brigade Combat Team's training there, or stop.
After weighing numerous factors, the commander pushed on.
This short-grass prairie dotted with historic artifacts and wildlife has fallen victim to Carson's heavy mechanized vehicles before. But this time, the ruts and vegetation damage left behind was so bad, Carson sought a special appropriation from the Pentagon.
The Army says that move alone proves it's a good steward of the environment; conservationists aren't buying it.
Dan Benford, director of plans, training, mobilization and security for the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, oversees a staff of four, three fewer than before sequestration hit this year and slashed federal spending. "Their job is to constantly monitor, analyze and provide feedback to the command group on the land conditions," he says of his staff.
The 2nd BCT's training began Feb. 20. Four days later, tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles and trucks squished through deep mud, gouging and regouging the land. It would continue for 18 days.
"Training in bad weather is important to what we do," Benford says. "We have vehicles that can drive through almost any weather conditions. That's when we're most likely to attack our [enemy], because we want to exploit their weaknesses."
Army regulations empower the commander to decide if the "criticality" of training outweighs other considerations, Benford says. Besides the need to get these BCT soldiers ready to deploy to Fort Irwin, Calif., and then overseas, Benford says moving troops between Carson and the PCMS costs $1 million round-trip. "The ability to say, 'Oops. It rained,' and send them back to Fort Carson and then send them back again [to PCMS] is not realistic."
Benford contends the damage and the other problems affected about 1,200 acres, and notes the Pentagon's $1.3 million appropriation will also cover harm from drought and noxious weeds. (He didn't provide a cost breakdown.)
Normally, the post would fund such damage from its budget, but it couldn't this time due to sequestration, he says. So the post asked the Pentagon for money. "It was that important to the Army to take care of Piñon Canyon," he says. "The Army is committed to being good stewards of our training land and environmental responsibilities."
Ripping the land
Some would argue that point, including Paula Ozzello. She's chairperson of the Southern Colorado Environmental Council, a group of citizens who monitor the Army's use of PCMS.
After touring the site in May with staff from U.S. Sen. Mark Udall's office and Las Animas County commissioners, Ozzello reports the unit appears to have trained on 93,000 acres and, in her estimation, damaged 10,000 or more.
"They just ripped the land apart," Ozzello says. "That's the best way to say it. And we're in an exceptional drought. All that land is sitting there bare, so when the wind blows, they're going to have a lot of fugitive dust to deal with."
In places, tanks packed the ground "super tight," she says, pulverizing root systems, and went beyond main roads to which they're supposed to be confined.
The damage prompted Las Animas County commissioners to ask Udall and fellow Sen. Michael Bennet in a June 18 letter to freeze the size of PCMS forever, instead of leaving the door open for expanding it. "A permanent expansion/funding ban would make them take care of what they already have," the letter states.
In a written statement submitted May 15 for the proposed 2013-2017 Fort Carson and Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan, Ozzello's group notes that the Army's own rules say units should avoid making off-road tracks with vehicles, because the enemy can then count the number of tanks in a unit, either in person or using satellite images; yet here, vehicles apparently made off-road tracks.
On June 12, Not 1 More Acre, a citizen group opposing PCMS expansion, said it had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for "massive undisclosed environmental damages" that are "aggravating dust storms that are now ravaging the drought-stricken Southern Great Plains." It also accused the Army of violating the National Environmental Policy Act.
Bottom line, according to Ozzello's group: If the Army isn't willing to maintain PCMS as a healthy eco-system, "a lot of taxpayer money is being wasted" on environmental plans and compliance rules.
Still no plan
Nearby citizens fret over wildlife and historic sites, such as old homesteads, Indian fire pits and rock drawings, 39 of which were damaged in a 2010 drill conducted without consultation with state historic preservation officials, a violation of law. The state and the post are still working on an agreement that will allow exercises to take place without prior notification, because all the historic sites will be mapped. State archaeologist Richard Wilshusen says he expects completion by year's end.
Benford says it's taking a long time because of staff shortages. He also admits that continuing budget cuts might make it tricky to care for PCMS. "If the impacts of sequester continue," he says, "if I'm not getting land rehabilitation and maintenance money, absolutely I see an impact to our training-land sustainability."
As for Ozzello's group, it might be happy to hear that Benford says no heavy training at the PCMS is planned this year, except a possible drill by the Colorado National Guard in August.