Ritter signs Pinon Canyon bill but warns it may not be enough
DENVER – Even though he’s not sure the state has the power to say “no” to the federal government, Gov. Bill Ritter on Thursday signed a bill aimed at stopping the Army from using eminent domain to expand a training site in southeastern Colorado.Ranchers have mobilized to fight the Army’s proposal to expand the Pinon Canyon maneuver site by 418,000 acres – or 653 square miles. That’s nearly triple the land the Army now owns, and the expansion would swallow up dozens of ranches.The Army is still studying how the expansion would be accomplished, but officials say they can’t rule out the use of eminent domain if the plans move ahead.Eminent domain is the power to force a landowner to sell to make way for a project for the public good.As ranchers, students and lawmakers looked on, Ritter said he didn’t want the new law (House Bill 1069) to raise expectations that the state could definitely stop the Army from forcing ranchers to sell.But he said it is a tool the state can use to help protect ranchers whose families have been living in the area since the turn of the last century.”The reason I’m doing this is has everything to do with the ranching community and the people who would be impacted by eminent domain,” said Ritter, who visited the area while campaigning last year.Ritter said he’s aware of the important role the Army, including Colorado Springs’ Fort Carson, plays in both Iraq and the state economy. After the signing he said he would work to maintain Colorado’s relationship with the Army.A woman shouted out “no more money for the war in Iraq” from behind a bank of television cameras as the ceremony ended.U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., who has asked the Army to give up the expansion, praised Ritter for signing the bill.”I’m a patriot and supporter of America’s armed forces, especially the United States Army. But I can’t support the abuse of eminent domain laws. They should only be used in extreme circumstances and to better the community as a whole,” said Salazar, an Army veteran, in a statement.Karen Edge, Fort Carson’s Pinon Canyon outreach coordinator, said the law was part of the democratic process and won’t harm relations between Colorado and the Army. But she said the Army will continue to pursue the expansion, pinpointing the land it wants to acquire and moving ahead with an environmental study later this year.”That land is necessary to train soldiers to the highest standard before sending them into combat zones,” she said.Ranchers don’t think the Army has proven that it needs so much land and think the arid, short grass prairie landscape is too fragile for training with tanks.Law supporters admit that no other state has tested this legal issue but they believe the new law is supported by a provision in the U.S. Constitution. It requires states to consent to any land taken by the federal government to build forts or arsenals.However, they don’t plan to find out what the courts think. Lon Robertson, a rancher from Kim and leader of the opposition effort, said the next step would be to convince Congress not to provide any funding for the expansion, armed with the show of support from Colorado lawmakers.”It’s from the grass roots and it speaks to the heart of the nation,” Robertson said.Rancher Bob Patterson, also from Kim, said residents there strongly support the troops serving in Iraq but don’t trust the Army because officials previously said they wouldn’t need any more land when Pinon Canyon was established in the 1980s.”It’s the Pentagon that’s the varmint here,” he said.
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