Antelope peer out from behind a cluster of wild sunflowers growing along the dusty dirt roads of southeastern Colorado, a place where you can still find wagon ruts left over from travelers on the Old Santa Fe Trail. On the walls of redrock canyons there are centuries-old petroglyphs.
If the military has its way, a half-million acres of this land may become a training ground for combat in the Middle East. The Army has set its sights on expanding its 235,000-acre Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site by more than 400,000 acres, a move it says is necessary to "accurately simulate anticipated, actual, combat conditions." Although Army officials have said they want to purchase the additional land from "willing sellers," ranchers in the area believe the military will use eminent domain to take their land. The Army has done it before, when the training facility was first established in the 1980s.
Expansion opponents have won some significant victories so far, with both the U.S. House and Senate adopting amendments to their military funding bills that would prohibit funding for the expansion and related studies next year. But no one knows whether that provision will remain intact in the final spending bill, especially since it was opposed in the Senate by Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard, R, who will sit on the conference committee responsible for writing the final legislation. Even if the amendment survives, it is likely to prove just a skirmish in what promises to be a long battle.
These ranchers are on the front line of this fight, and they say that not only is their land at stake, but also their way of life.
When Kennie and Maria Gyurman decided to retire, fighting the military-industrial complex wasn't exactly what they had in mind. They expected to raise a few head of cattle on the 148 acres they bought from Kennie's brother, do a little gardening and maybe a little traveling.
But no sooner had they put the finishing touches on their custom-built brick ranch house than they began to hear rumors of the expansion effort. It was a scene that was all too familiar to Kennie, whose family lost more than 5,000 acres of their nearly 17,000-acre ranch in the 1980s. He still gets choked up talking about it. "They treat you like dirt," he says. "They're treating the people like dirt right now."
He says the locals have wised up to the way the military operates, however, and are better organized to fight a land grab. "It's different this time because we know what to expect," he says.
"They do know how to do what they're doing, and that's quietly, as fast as possible, make it as tough on the people as they can so that they will ... spread the word that you don't want to oppose the Army when they get ready to condemn because it isn't worth it," Gyurman says. "People have heart attacks, they pay them less for their land, they don't ever give them any information, they just pick them off. That's the way it happens."
Tim and Annette Roberts didn't even get to go on a honeymoon. The couple, married just over a year, have been so embroiled in fighting the expansion and keeping their ranch afloat that they haven't had time for much else. Tim is still trying to rebuild the 20,000-acre ranch after drought forced him to sell all the cattle but a few longhorns in 2002. To help make ends meet, he works for a coalbed methane company, Pioneer Natural Resources in Trinidad. "We haven't taken a day off," Roberts says.
For Roberts, who hopes to hand the ranch over to his son someday, keeping the land in the family is partly about fulfilling a promise he made as a young child to his cousins. "Even when we were real little, I can remember all of us talking and saying that no matter what, we had to keep the ranches together. Regardless of what happened, that was like our main goal from the time we was real young. We had to keep the ranches together."
Tony Hass didn't grow up on a ranch. He grew up in the military, with a career-Navy father who made his children bounce quarters off their beds to make sure the sheets were tucked in tight enough. But he was entranced by the stories his grandfather told about homesteading land in southeastern Colorado. After a few years of amateur bullriding and working on other ranches, Hass decided to make his long-held dream a reality. He bought property in Thatcher, just 15 miles from where his grandfather once lived.
"I didn't inherit this ranch," Hass says. "I had to work every job that I could find to make this work. I mean, I've drove a dozer, I've pushed a broom for the school as a night janitor, I've dug sewers, I've hauled hay, I've done fence construction, all of that, to make payments on this place, to make sure that we made it through the hard times. ... It isn't happening anymore that a young couple, a young man can start from scratch and put a ranch together, and I've managed to do it, and I'm within two years of paying the place off."
Hass' 5,800-acre ranch is anchored by an 1872 adobe home and includes the Hole in the Rock stage stop, portions of the Santa Fe Trail and ancient pictographs. He has a collection of old arrowheads and rare coins he suspects were used in poker games by the first cowboys to live in the area. Now, Hass worries that all this history will be lost forever if the Army takes his land.
Mack Louden's ranch isn't in jeopardy yet, but that doesn't mean he isn't worried. Louden and many of the ranchers in the area believe the current expansion effort is just the first phase of a long-term plan by the military to take over most of southern Colorado, some 2.5 million acres in all, according to an Army map leaked to the opposition. Although the Army has dismissed the map as outdated and inaccurate, many ranchers remain unconvinced.
Louden's family first came to the area from Ohio in 1902, making him the fourth generation to live and work in the region. Besides his 22,000-acre ranch east of Branson, Mack and his wife, Toyleen, run Marty Feeds in Trinidad. If the expansion effort succeeds, Louden worries that the feed store will falter, the demand for livestock feed and other ranching supplies dwindling with the exodus of the ranchers.
Louden noted that the region's economy still hasn't recovered from the loss of the original 235,000 acres. "People realize now that as precarious as this economy is in southeastern Colorado, we take another 414,000 acres out of here, it's gonna start hurting a lot of cities," he says. "It's gonna hurt everybody, and I think that people are realizing that."
Abel Benavidez's ancestors moved to southeastern Colorado in 1872, settling first in Red Rocks before moving to the family's current plot of land in 1925. Benavidez moved back to the 800-acre ranch in 1996, after he retired from the Bureau of Reclamation. While the ranch is small by southeastern Colorado standards, Benavidez says it's good land, blessed with a pretty good aquifer, clean air and views of the mountains.
Abel and Judy, his wife of 23 years, are doing everything they can to stop the expansion. These days, that means attending endless meetings - with other members of the opposition coalition, the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, the Kiwanis Club and other groups - as well as dealing with a steady of flood of e-mails and telephone calls, keeping a close eye on important congressional votes via C-SPAN, and activities such as manning the coalition's booth at the state fair. "It just keeps things in a constant turmoil, and I really believe that this is what the Army would like to do," says Abel, who served in the military for more than 30 years. "They're gonna use taxpayers' dollars to fight us and then what they're gonna say is, 'We'll tire you guys out. We'll tire you guys out.' Really, honest to God. And they may do that."
But Benavidez is determined to stay as long as he can: "I'm going to be the poster child for eminent domain, because they're going to have to carry me off of this place, and that's the God's truth."
The author is a freelance writer in Woodland Park, Colorado.