By Bob Ewegen
TRINIDAD, Colorado - U.S. Senator Mark Udall, D-Colo., has called a closed-door meeting Tuesday, Aug. 13, at the controversial Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site in southern Colorado aimed at winning what a top Army official calls "the support of our community stakeholders to ensure we preserve and sustain our ability to train at Piñon Canyon over the long term."
Udall deliberately excluded representatives of the major groups that have been critical of the Army's plans at Piñon Canyon, including both Not 1 More Acre! and the Piñon Canyon Opposition Coalition. A person who was invited to the closed-door meeting sent a copy of the invitation to N1MA! President Jean Aguerre, who then asked Gloria Gutierrez, Udall's Regional Director in Pueblo, if Not 1 More Acre! could attend the meeting with Udall, Assistant Army Secretary Katherine Hammack and Army officials from Fort Carson. Gutierrez refused, replying in full:
Thank you for your email. Due to limited space available invitations are limited to elected officials and business community leaders. Invitations are non-transferable.
"Sen. Udall can't even get his story straight," Aguerre said. "First he says critics of the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site weren't invited 'due to limited space available.' But then, just to ensure that no critics do slip in, he adds that 'invitations are non-transferable' so that somebody interested in fair play couldn't give his or her invitation to the watchdogs."
Udall's intention to freeze out critics is even more obvious because of the short time line given for notice of the Tuesday meeting at Piñon Canyon. The carefully screened invitations to meet with Udall and Assistant Secretary of the Army Katherine Hammack went out on Thursday, Aug 8. - with responses due "no later than 3:00 pm Friday." (Emphasis in original.)
"It is simply outrageous for Colorado's senior senator to schedule a pep rally promoting Piñon Canyon on such short notice without opening the meeting to everyone -- critics and members of the taxpaying public included," Aguerre said.
Udall defended his closed-door meeting to Denver Post reporter Alison Sherry, saying: "Pinon Canyon is critically important to our soldiers, our ranchers and our economy. I believe that the only way to move forward is through open dialogue and good faith efforts to find common-sense solutions."
Aguerre immediately challenged Udall's rationalization, saying: "Unfortunately, what Udall calls 'open dialogue' is more like a pep rally in an echo chamber. There is nothing 'common sense' about decimating the prairie or keeping the region under the thumb of the Pentagon."
Hammack, the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations and Environment, hasn't always faced the kind of puff-ball questions she will receive at Udall's closed-door session. Hammack was hit with much more critical questioning recently at a hearing in Washington before the House Military Construction Committee when she was asked if there had been an assessment of the environmental conditions at the PCMS after the training sessions conducted by the 2nd Brigade Combat Team and the 4th Infantry Division on the site from February 24 to March 18 of this year.
Hammack was asked, "What did it show, especially with regard to dust creation?"
Hammack submitted her answer in writing, "The 2nd Brigade Combat Team maneuvered within a 93,000-acre box on Piñon Canyon for three weeks. An operation pause was conducted only for a few hours during blizzardconditions, but all objectives were met. Dust creation was not an issue this training due to the snow cover. A post-training assessment found that the brigade exercises caused maneuver damage as a result of the two-winter blizzards and subsequent ground moisture."
"With the area's forecasted drought predictions and fragile landscape of short prairie grass, reclamation and seeding is critical. HQ Installation Management Command (HQ IMCOM) is currently reprioritizing funding to focus on re-vegetation at Piñon Canyon necessary for long-term soil stability. ... This initial re-vegetation work is estimated to cost $1.3 million and should reduce dust and storm water sediment leaving the installation as a result of future training exercises," Hammack told the Committee.
Hammack's testimony raised eyebrows at watchdog group Not 1 More Acre!. For openers, the assistant secretary's assurance that "dust creation was not an issue" because of the snow cover seems an obvious bit of bureaucratic misdirection. Nobody, after all, expects dust to fly during a blizzard that has turned the prairie soil into a muddy quagmire.
There is no question that maneuvering massive tanks and other heavy vehicles through that very quagmire destroyed irreplaceable vital ground cover - thus perpetrating worse dust storms. And as Hammack admitted, that is exactly what happened.
As a result, in May, the Installation Management Command awarded Fort Carson $1.3 million "to complete the much-needed land rehabilitation" according to a news release from Fort Carson, the scheduler, manager and one of the users of Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site.
Unfortunately, expert studies published in scientific journals indicate therehabilitation will surely fail.
Fritz L. Knopf, an historical Great Plains ecologist who is a close observer of the site, called Hammack's testimony "bizarre." In particular, he criticized the assumption that simply seeding the soil would replace deep-rooted grasses destroyed during the maneuvers. That is highly unlikely given drought conditions and other problems at the site, Knopf said.
He continued, "Despite the Army's acknowledgement that plant cover is essential to prevent soil erosion, all the non-native seeding is temporary. Seed must have rain and even if enough rain falls to support sprouting, establishing a deep-rooted grass cover to protect the soil after the shortgrass has been destroyed has not been successfully demonstrated."
Historically, southeastern Colorado lies in what Knopf terms the 'headwinds' of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The epicenter of Dust Bowl impact is generally considered to be the Boise City, Oklahoma area, just ESE (downwind) of PCMS. The rising temperatures, severe drought in the region and the heavy ravages already dealt to the Piñon Canyon site risk again metastasizing the dust storms that were this nation's worst environmentalcatastrophe.
"Simply put, both the best scientific information available and the agonized reactions of ranchers who see their historic homesteads again imperiled by dust storms point to the same conclusion: The Pentagon should close thePiñon Canyon Maneuver Site and leave this tortured land and the region from further trauma," Aguerre said.
"But you won't hear anyone saying this at Sen. Udall's pep rally. Only those who are deemed to have palms that can be crossed with taxpayer dollars to militarize the region will be invited to attend. And that is a betrayal of both the people of Southern Colorado and of the democratic process itself."