Guest Columns


Josh Penry (almost) gets it on Piñon Canyon; Scott McInnis, not at all

The subject of the Piñon Canyon expansion has become a wedge issue in the Republican primary battle for the gubernatorial nomination, with former U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis posturing as the champion of pro-expansion defense contractors and military interests in Colorado Springs, and Colorado Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry taking up the more traditional Republican mantle as the supporter of individual property rights.

Penry almost understands why an expansion of Piñon Canyon would be wrong. Almost, but not quite. He understands the history of the situation. He gets it that ranchers in southeastern Colorado have bitter memories of the Army promising that they wouldn’t use condemnation to acquire the current 238,000 acre maneuver site, and then taking most of it through the use of eminent domain. He understands the skepticism of citizens in Trinidad and La Junta who remember the Army’s hollow assurances, back in the early ’80s, that the presence of an Army training range between those two towns would lead to economic benefits for local contractors. And, most importantly, he sees the morality of it all — that eminent domain, forcibly taking the land of hard-working, patriotic American citizens, turning them into virtual refugees — would simply be wrong. He argues that the Army should go beyond verbal commitments to “work with willing sellers” and take eminent domain off the table in a legally binding way. So far, so good.

But he doesn’t seem to understand that if the Army is allowed to move forward with its acquisition plan, there is also the likelihood that many property owners would find themselves landlocked — surrounded by a live-fire maneuver range. If this were allowed to happen, the lifestyle that they and their ancestors have lived for four and five generations would become a practical impossibility. It would be another form of indirect condemnation; a cruel strategy by the Army to create “willing sellers.”

But Penry’s blind spots are nothing compared to the complete blindness of McInnis. He doesn’t get it at all. He doesn’t see that there are serious environmental and cultural concerns. He completely discounts the property rights issue. He doesn’t seem to care that the growth of Fort Carson would mean the death of the agricultural economy in Las Animas County. And he apparently has no qualms about federalizing thousands more acres of land in our state, 34 percent of which is already owned by the federal government. For him it’s all about increasing Colorado Springs’ economic dependence upon the military and defense contractors.

Right now, 40 percent of the struggling Colorado Springs economy is dependent upon the military. McInnis apparently adheres to the “if-something’s-not-working,-do-more-of-it” theory of management. Instead of advocating the diversification of the Colorado Springs economy, his solution to the city’s economic problems is to bring in more troops.

Both of these Republican candidates are missing two essential points. First, the location of training for troops should not be primarily a political process or an instrument of economic development. The issue of military training should not be turned into a political football and a competition between rival Army bases in different states. It is easy enough to call upon ranchers to make “patriotic sacrifices” in giving up their land, but what about the idea that Colorado Springs might have a patriotic duty to make a sacrifice and let the troops go to Texas? If there’s surplus land already owned by the Army at Fort Bliss, then that’s where training should take place.

Secondly, there really is no property rights issue at this point. That may become a real argument somewhere down the line if Congress actually funds expansion, but at this point it’s a straw man. The current argument is not about the freedom of private citizens to sell their property. It’s about whether or not to authorize the Department of the Army to buy that property. It’s not about “willing sellers.” It’s about “unauthorized buyers.” The question is whether the Army should be authorized to spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars to federalize thousands more acres of agricultural land in Colorado to turn it into a huge live-fire range that they don’t need.

It is ironic that two conservative Republicans are arguing about the best way to keep Colorado’s economy dependent upon the federal government. The state’s economy depends on regional diversity, including agriculture and future alternative energy development to sustain true health and growth.

Doug Holdread is the chairman of the art department at Trinidad State Junior College. He has hiked and painted the plains and canyons of southeastern Colorado for four decades. He serves as an unpaid consultant to the Piñon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition.