Conquistadors, Native Americans, mountain men and Mexican settlers have trekked through the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site in the past 500 years, leaving behind rock paintings, fire pits and tools. Going back 150 million years, the land now dotted with dwarf milkweed, grasses and juniper hosted brontosaurs and allosaurs.
Located in Las Animas County about 100 miles southeast of Colorado Springs, the area is so rich in archeological sites that in 2007 it was named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
Endangered, because Fort Carson uses live ammunition and mechanized vehicles to train thousands of soldiers at the 235,802-acre site.
Now it appears the National Trust's fears were well-founded. Federal and state historic preservation officials are investigating the Army's August infringement onto archeological sites that violated federal law.
Though Carson prides itself on having what Garrison Commander Col. Robert McLaughlin calls "the best environmental office in the Army," tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles invaded areas containing prehistoric campsites, possibly damaging cultural resources, state and federal officials say.
"There were 39 sites that were breached," says Steve Turner, deputy state historic preservation officer.
McLaughlin blames the problem on an oversight caused by a change in Fort Carson and state historic preservation personnel. Before the 2nd Brigade Combat Team's exercise — the first using a mechanized force at Piñon Canyon in about eight years — Carson should have notified historic preservation officials, but didn't, a violation of federal historic preservation laws.
McLaughlin says Carson is working with the state to assess damage and draft an agreement that "gives us more flexibility to do routine training" without pre-reporting it.
Analysis, McLaughlin says, led Carson to conduct additional surveying and marking of archeological sites and improve digital maps for commanders' use. "What we've learned is, we've got to give it more details," McLaughlin says.
The mistake didn't sit well with commissioners from Las Animas, Otero and Pueblo counties, where many are fighting the Army's proposed 418,000-acre expansion of Piñon Canyon. The commissioners, along with nonprofit Colorado Preservation, Inc., filed complaints.
Pueblo County commissioners' letter to the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation noted "military training exercises using mechanized, tracked vehicles clearly have the potential for damaging historic properties in our region." They accused the Army of a "long pattern of avoiding and minimizing its [historic preservation] responsibilities."
That assessment is "flat-out wrong," asserts Brian Binn, the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce's president for military affairs. The Army and Defense Department are "leaders in environmental protection," Binn says, adding, "The danger is this type of letter [from commissioners] could hurt the Army's ability to use the land they already own for the best use possible for training of the soldiers."
But even if ancient treasures were damaged or destroyed at the site, used for Army training since 1985, federal laws "lack the regulatory teeth" to force its closure, Advisory Council spokesman Bruce Milhans says.
Rather, Turner notes, the historic preservation agencies will notify the head of the Army, who presumably will "take steps in the future to see those regulations are followed."
Advisory Council officials say the investigation — a review of paperwork, consultations with the Army and state officials, and damage assessments, but no site visit — will wrap up within a month or two.