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Ranchers bring battle to town


Donna Sneller heard all the half-answers and careful bureaucratic language that she could stand Tuesday afternoon.

Along with about half of the 450 people at the Fort Carson town meeting, Sneller came to Pueblo Convention Center with no interest in the day's original purpose. She and ranching families didn't need to hear more about adding nearly 25,000 people (active military, civilians and dependents) for the region.

Wearing "Not 4 Sale" buttons, they demanded straight responses about the Army's developing plans to add 418,000 additional acres for its Pion Canyon Maneuver Site southwest of La Junta and east of Walsenburg and Trinidad.

After listening to why the Army so desperately needs that ranchland to prepare for the "battlefield of tomorrow," Sneller stood up and offered her own solution for the ideal military training locale.

"I see where a lot of the fighting now is going on in the city of Baghdad," Sneller said with a piercing glare. "So why don't you just expand your training to the streets of Colorado Springs?"

That sarcastic comment brought cheers and applause. Sneller, from Walsenburg, wasn't trying to be funny. Instead, her words and the reaction drove home the day's most sobering point.

These people do not think highly of the Springs. Their animosity is spreading like untreated cancer, and the pro-Army rhetoric is pouring gas on the fire.

Talk to those ranching people, and it's easy to understand their anger.

"As soon as this all started coming out," said Lester Jackson from the tiny rural community of Kim, "it was like a death sentence."

To them, Colorado Springs has become the epitome of selfishness, wailing that "Pion Canyon has to expand, or we'll lose Fort Carson." They're mad about rumors Pion Canyon was part of a secret "deal" in the last BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) process. They face the prospect of losing their land, schools and economic stability. Meanwhile, they seethe at the Springs being so gleeful about more troops and families bringing more money and jobs.

"The way we see it, Colorado Springs is willing to kill one area of the state at the expense of another area," said T.L. Henderson of La Junta.

Those emotions stood out because of how they differed from the city crowd. Many from Pueblo, and others from the Springs, wanted to know more about the influx over the next two years. They also heard about the $60 million interchange for Interstate 25 and Colorado 16, improving a major access to Carson. They learned about the state helping schools deal with more military kids.

Nobody seemed to care about the Pion Canyon ranchers. Their damage already is immense. They don't trust the Army. They don't trust anybody anymore. So they go to these meetings, raise their voices and fight for their land, families, history and way of life. They cheer little victories, such as the ongoing bill in Denver making it tougher for the Army to impose eminent domain.

How strong are their feelings? One man wrote down a forum question that never made it to the podium, but it echoed the sentiment of many: "Is the Army prepared to kill American citizens to seize their property?"

The ranchers aren't giving up. Donna Sneller looked around at her friends and spoke for them with a touching eloquence.

"These people, all of us, are living in limbo," she said. "The mental well-being of our whole area is going down through the floor. It's not a matter of caring for the military, because we do. This is a matter of, what does America really stand for? And they never answered a dang question for us today."

So go ahead, Colorado Springs, and be happy about all those new soldiers and families coming soon to Fort Carson.

Just don't gloat about Pion Canyon. Because that battle is just starting. And if you had seen the spirit, unity, togetherness and sincerity of those ranchers and their families, you couldn't help but want them to prevail.

Even against the U.S. Army.

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