Mack Louden spits Copenhagen juice on the floor of the empty storage bay of his shuttered feed store in Trinidad, a small town in southeastern Colorado an hour’s drive from Louden’s ranch. He rests his hand on a leather cell phone holster like a gunslinger might. Then he grins. Or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t frown. He is letting something happen that’s pretty alien to his nature: There’s a photographer with a lens about two inches from the nose on Louden’s life-creased, weather-worn face, crowding his personal space. Under any other circumstances, someone this far inside his personal space would get some serious pushback.
But Louden, an activist for the group Not 1 More Acre!, puts up with the inconvenience. What the cause asks for, ranchers like Louden give. The alternative is the end of life as they know it. Publicity is a powerful if uncomfortable weapon for people accustomed to their privacy, for whom property lines and personal space are more important than mere law. In the asymmetrical war these ranchers are fighting, they use any weapon they can, because theirs is an opponent that tends to win: the U.S. Army.
The Army already occupies 245,000 acres of Colorado’s desolate Piñon Canyon, which it uses for large-scale, force-on-force mechanized brigade combat exercises involving tanks and armored units. But since 2006 Uncle Sam has had his eye on at least 418,000 acres more, to handle increased demand for maneuvers and the expansion of Fort Carson.
Most of that land is private property in the Comanche National Grasslands lying between the rustic ranching towns of La Junta, Trinidad, and Walsenburg. The proposed annexation, which would create a contiguous Army-owned area 85 percent the size of Rhode Island, has attracted loud opposition from local landowners, environmentalists, scientists, and politicians. Their combined efforts were enough to gain a congressionally ordered reprieve in 2007, but the Army appears determined to wear them down. In fact, the training ground expansion may be just the first phase of an enormous land grab potentially involving millions of acres.
The Army’s land envy is why Louden, the 58-year-old son and grandson of Colorado ranchers, closed Marty Feeds, a Trinidad landmark for almost a century, in the summer of 2008. He could run a ranch, run a business, or fight the land grab, but not all three at once. “When it comes down to it, this is what’s important,” Louden says, sitting upstairs in the nearly vacant building after the photo shoot, spitting into a paper cup to underline his point. “It’s driving my wife crazy how much of my time this has taken, but no matter what it costs me I’d fight it again if I had the chance.”
‘This land is not for sale at any price.’
Piñon Canyon is a barren but ranchable landscape on the east side of the Continental Divide that resembles the kind of high desert environment found in much of Iraq, which is one reason the military uses it for training. The Army says it needs to expand the existing Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site (PCMS), where armored and mechanized units out of nearby Fort Carson conduct live-fire training exercises twice a year. The additional space is needed, the argument goes, to enable Fort Carson’s growth and to allow units larger than a battalion to conduct exercises on a wider variety of terrain.
Opponents say such a seizure would devastate local economies, affecting as many as 50,000 people who live in the towns surrounding the PCMS, plus 567 ranches, and more than $20 million a year in agricultural production, mostly in the form of cattle.
Lon Robertson, a neighbor of Louden’s (meaning his property is within 20 miles) and the head of the Piñon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition, emphasizes that it’s not just about the land. “The impact on this whole region will be monumental,” Robertson says. “It will be devastating.” Aside from the estimated $20 million in ranching business directly affected, neighboring ranches will feel the impact of nearby maneuvers—live-fire tank battles will disturb both rancher and ranched—and the closing of certain access roads in the area. Louden’s one-hour drive from his ranch to Trinidad, for example, would turn into a two-hour detour around the new maneuver site. Most of the towns depend on ranching and agricultural commerce. An expansion could mean their end, unless the ghost towns are turned into urban warfare training sites.
Some of the ranch deeds in these parts go back to the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave 160 acres of unoccupied land to anyone moving west in exchange for a small fee and five years’ residence. Folks here refer to each other’s land as “country,” as in, “That’s Kenny’s country over there.” Louden’s family traces its local roots to 1902, when his grandfather rode on horseback from Indiana down the Santa Fe Trail and settled about 60 miles east of Trinidad. “This land is not for sale at any price,” Louden says, repeating a phrase you can find on bumper stickers and yard signs throughout the area.
The Department of Defense already owns about 25 million acres in the United States, of which the Army’s share is 15 million. The military says that’s not enough, because to train the right way, it needs a certain kind of terrain, within a certain proximity to existing bases, and it needs lots of it. Local ranchers have an answer to that: Not one more acre. The battle cry is the name of their nonprofit action group.
The current Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site is 245,000 acres along and around the Purgatoire River. It was taken, or purchased after eminent domain proceedings, in September 1983 at a cost of about $26 million ($53.5 million in current dollars) plus $2 million ($4.1 million today) for relocating dozens of ranchers and their families. Southeast Coloradans were promised two things in 1983: There would be no further expansion, and the PCMS would not be used for live-fire exercises. “I reiterate there will be no live firing at [PCMS],” a major general at Fort Carson wrote to a participant at one of the preliminary public hearings on the initial Piñon Canyon seizures, in a letter dated July 30, 1980.
But neither promise has been kept. And some of the same people in the Army’s sights now had their ranch land taken a quarter-century ago.
These people are not your typical anti-military types. They’re dyed-in-the-wool Red Staters, many of them service veterans. They just don’t see why the Army needs their land, given all it already has. “If they needed it for legitimate defense of our country, I think every last one of us would give them our land,” Louden says. “But they don’t need this land. They just want it. They already own 25 million acres. Why do they need this land here?”
Army spokesman Dave Foster says the area is needed to expand the PCMS partly because the number of soldiers stationed at Fort Carson, the base for the units that use the training ground, will grow from 16,000 to 25,000 during the next two years. “Changes to unit organization in the past year, upgrades to technology, and a decision to add a fifth [brigade combat team] have all pushed the doctrinal training land requirements up, not down, at Fort Carson,” Foster says. As for why the Army doesn’t use some of the copious land it already has, Foster says in many cases the terrain isn’t right or the land is subject to federal restrictions preventing it from being used for training. What it really boils down to, he admits, is convenience.