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Army targets southeastern Colorado rangelands

Ranchers feel under siege from site expansion

 

Let's say you live next door to the biggest, richest, loudest guy in town. There doesn't seem to be any limit to his money or to his ambitions. On a street with old, beater work trucks parked in front of modest houses, this guy has all the latest RVs. You and the other neighbors keep tidy yards, tilling kitchen gardens and planting flowers. This guy digs out the front lawn to put in a concrete pool, with fountains.

Then one day you're in his garage, looking for tools he borrowed, when you come across a map detailing his plan to take over the entire block. Your place would become a guesthouse. The neighbors across the alley would have their houses razed to accommodate a motocross track. There's a timeline for his acquisitions, which in 20 years would stretch over five counties.

When confronted by the neighbors, he downplays his carefully drawn plans, but pleads that his family just needs a little extra space. Despite owning vast properties in other states, he would sure like to have that one little flowerbed that lies along your common fence-line. Surely that's not too much to ask.

Far-fetched? Unfortunately not. In fact, this is why neighbors of the Pinón Canon military training site in southeast Colorado don't trust the United States Army. Last week, Fort Carson declared that it would not expand its 368 square-mile facility this year. But officials stopped short of abandoning their 20-year strategy of stretching the borders onto neighboring ranches, despite moratoriums from Congress and the Colorado Legislature. Keith Easton, assistant secretary of the Army, dismisses the community's concerns: "America's greatest resource is its sons and daughters -- they are more valuable than any material wealth, natural beauty, archaeological treasure or biodiversity."

I have a neighbor who understands the value of biodiversity, and knows firsthand the hard work of protecting it. Kelly Bader ranches with his wife, Randy, just over the mesa east of Piñon Canon. They've already been displaced once, when the growing population around the small town of Mancos forced them to uproot their ranching operations and seek less-crowded range in the Kim community. They don't welcome the prospect of moving again. Rural families aren't especially mobile. The Baders had to adapt their range-management skills, then retool their cowherd.

"We knew a lot about handling cows, but we wanted to be even better stewards of the land," Kelly says.

They drove to the town of LaJunta to attend weekly classes with range scientists from Colorado State University, studying alongside neighbors who have ranched in the area for generations. They've spent countless days horseback in the rough canyons and piñon-dotted mesas, distributing cattle and monitoring the grasses.

Fitting into Kim's multigenerational community fabric also took time. In rural Colorado, neighbors count on one another to protect the land. The Baders leave forage standing along the creeks to ensure clean water for the ranchers downstream. Upstream neighbors count on them to keep the ridges covered with bunchgrass so that hot, dry winds don't whip dust clouds up the canyon. Everyone keeps up fence to prevent the overgrazing that marred these lands a century ago, in open-range days.

But the extended drought that began in 2001 has forced the Baders to adjust their stocking rate, as well as their income. They sold off many of their Red Angus cows, and their son, Ira, drives a truck part-time.

The Baders could sell this ranch to the Army and relocate someplace else where the rains haven't forgotten to fall. But they say they're not ready to give up on the years of investment, both in money and experience, that they've spent nurturing a healthy range.

Most ranch families are fiercely patriotic, seeing careful ranching as a vital part of national security. Rangeland supplies clean water, ties up carbon, and feeds the American diet with a bounty of high-quality protein. Ranching communities also create a solid financial base for the regional economy. Farms and ranches in these counties produce more than a half-billion dollars worth of agricultural products every year.

Yet this region feels that it's under siege from the Army -- that the military has drawn a target around the entire southeastern corner of Colorado and the five counties stretching from Trinidad to the Kansas state line. Last summer, officials at Fort Carson denied that wildfires had spread from its maneuver site onto neighboring ranches. News helicopters proved them wrong. When firefighters were finally allowed into the area, they had to retreat from exploding ordnance in areas where live munitions were not allowed.

The Army says it needs more land to better protect the nation. But if the community fabric and ecological health of a region larger than Massachusetts isn't worth protecting, than who – or what -- is the Army fighting for?

Chris Frasier is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He ranches with his family near Limon, Colorado.