Some 30 years later, locals still refer to it as “The Taking.”
In 1980, the Fort Carson Army Installation Base, near Colorado Springs, Colo., began the process of acquiring 238,000 acres of ranchland in Southeast Colorado to create the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site. It was an ambush. The landowners, frightened and confused, responded in a variety of ways but were ultimately pushed out.
Only half of the land was sold to the Army by willing sellers and some of those sales came from realtors who caught wind of the Army’s plans and subsequently engineered deals. Any unwilling seller whose ranch lay between two willing sellers was doomed.
Well-versed in battle tactics, the Army divided the ranchers to conquer them. Some felt as though it was their patriotic duty to sell to the Army. Others pleaded with Congress. Others fought until the bitter end in the courts, losing the entire value of their ranches in legal fees. Still others steadfastly refused to leave their property until U.S. Marshalls forcibly removed them.
Charles Gyurman is one rancher who received a visit from a U.S. Marshall who told him to remove his cows. The Army acquired a part of his ranch, and in the process, he suffered a stroke that left him on his back for the rest of his life. Today, his son, Kennie, continues to ranch on what was left.
Once it was over, in 1983, The Taking became one of the largest condemnations of private property in U.S. history, but it pales in comparison to what came next.
In 2005, a map leaked to the La Junta Tribune-Democrat showing plans for a proposed 20-year expansion to overtake nearly 5 million acres of land in Southeast Colorado. Later research uncovered the actual planned expansion was closer to 7 million acres, just bigger than the entire state of Maryland. Though the Department of Defense limits military bases from purchasing land in excess to 1,000 acres or $1 million, the ranchers soon discovered that Fort Carson had also already applied for a waiver of that regulation.
Roughly 10 percent of the state’s acreage—bound by Interstate 25 to the west, New Mexico and Oklahoma to the south, Kansas to the east, and the Arkansas River to the north—was in the Army’s crosshairs. More than 17,000 people would be displaced.
This time, though, the Army lost the element of surprise. The ranchers and their allies would fight. They formed the Pinon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition, and two offshoots, Grasslands Trust and Not One More Acre!, and began drawing up a battle plan.
[Why did they want it?]
Nationally, the Department of Defense controls some 25 million acres. So the proposed massive land grab begged the question, Why does the Army need so much land?
In response to this question, the Army informed the public that it needed the land to properly train troops for brigade-scale combat in semi-arid regions similar to that of Iraq and Afghanistan. Further research, however, reveals frustrating and typically bureaucratic reasons for the proposed expansion.
First, U.S. Army bases are subject to a process called Defense Base Realignment and Closure, wherein bases are routinely closed. Even Fort Carson, a premier Army base, suffers from the fear of closure and actively works to make itself indispensible to the Army’s mission.
Sharing in that fear—and prodding for growth—is the city of Colorado Springs and El Paso County. The city and county’s economic vitality is largely dependent upon military presence, and the entities work together to promote the area’s growth.
More troops means more growth in the area and a smaller chance that the base will close, but there must be a reason for more troops—hence, a brigade-level training ground.
“An active and vibrant military presence is good for their economy,” explains Steve Wooten, a rancher who shares about seven miles of fence with the current PCMS near Kim, Colo., and is vice president of the PCEOC. “If Colorado Springs and El Paso County want to have a combination military and private economic base, that’s fine. Just not at the expense of our private property rights.”
Finally, there’s no top-down land use planning in the Department of Defense. Rather, it’s a bottom-up process wherein each base proposes and predicts its land use needs for the future. So, for example, while the 800,000-acre Dugway Proving Ground facility in Utah might be suitable for brigade-scale desert training, there’s no authority telling Fort Carson that a suitable training ground already exists.
Unlike much of America’s population, the kids in Southeast Colorado are often raised in the same house their great-grandparents built. The people here are not as transient as the rest of our culture. History and place are dominant factors in their sense of self.
Lon Robertson, president of the PCEOC, rancher, and owner of the Kim Outpost store, is named for his grandfather, who came in a covered wagon from Texas in 1916 to settle in Southeast Colorado.
Steve Wooten’s great-grandfather migrated to the United States in 1860 from Ireland. He built a ranching empire in Southeast Colorado and Northeast New Mexico that includes the ranch where Wooten and his wife, Joy, now live, purchased in 1929.
“Between my wife and I, me on the Doherty side and Joy on the Jackson side, there were 11 families in that expansion area,” Wooten says. “With that large-scale land grab, we were going to see our family broken up and scattered to the wind. There’s no way to pick all that family heritage up and move it to Arizona and keep it intact.”
From Trinidad to Springfield, the stories are similar. These folks are children and grandchildren of those who survived the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Descendants can point to Public Works Administration projects their ancestors helped build that are still in use today. In a word, they’re tough.
“We aren’t still here after multiple generations because we give up,” Robertson says. “Because of the nature of life here, we’re a little more stubborn. We don’t go along just to go along. It better make sense or we won’t survive.”
Grady Grissom, another PCEOC board member and rancher from closer to Fowler, puts it more bluntly:
“When it all started, I was told by a lot of people—influential people who had seen the 1980 creation of Pinon Canyon—that I was wasting my time. But I didn’t think I could ever forgive myself if I got chased off that land without fighting. It’s the mentality of the rancher—you may whip me, but I will hit you before it’s over.”
When the map was leaked and the dispute started, filmmaker Jim Bigham produced a 30-minute documentary. In it, he interviewed Mike Kazmierski, who, at the time, was the CEO of the Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corporation and former Garrison Commander of Fort Carson.
“There’s no question that there are willing sellers,” Kazmierski says in the film. “If it’s anything like the first Pinon Canyon, many of these farmers are barely making ends meet. It’s a very dry part of the state. It’s over-ranched. In some cases, that part of the state is just getting by.”
That sentiment became the perception and argument for expansion. However, within that one statement, the PCEOC found its first two points of rebuttal to begin their counterattack. The first, that there were willing sellers, and the second, that the area was over-ranched or abused.
Their response in refuting the willing sellers claim was simple. The PCEOC created a map, and starting in concentric circles around the PCMS, they contacted landowners to find out if they were indeed willing sellers, promising anonymity. Not one person came forward publicly as a willing seller.
Next, and perhaps most significantly, PCEOC commissioned an expansive biological study to address the claim that the ranching community had abused the land. Knowing they had to get ahead of the Army’s own studies, they worked with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program—with funding from Great Outdoors Colorado and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Ag Trust—to study over 1 million acres of privately held ranchland.
The study kicked off in 2006, and before the fight was over, everyone could see its effect.
“The biological study was huge,” Grissom says. “In the 1980s, the Army made the argument that the land was used up; it’s been dry and the people are looking for a way out.”
Until that point, the only grassland studies in the state were on Comanche and Pawnee National Grasslands because biologists couldn’t get large-scale access to private property.
“Steve had the foresight and the huevos to organize that biological study,” Grissom adds. “For 50 years the beef industry has said they’re the environmental stewards of the land, but nobody has had the bravery to bring biologists on to their land and prove it. In 1 million acres, the study encompasses all kinds of management styles and the overall verdict was this land is healthy. Those biologists were dumfounded, but Steve had the belief in ranching.”
Ranchers, Grissom pointed out, operate on such a thin financial margin that any abuse of the land leads to an almost immediate economic message in the form of smaller weaning weights and poor breed ups. Ranchers anywhere, but particularly in a fragile ecosystem like Southeastern Colorado, cannot abuse the land and stay in business. In fact, Grissom argues, ranching is inherently sustainable for that very fact. Track tanks, on the other hand, are much more difficult—if not impossible—for the short grass prairie to recover from.
The biological study then led to a similar archeological study in 2007, conducted by Colorado Preservation Inc.
“The Army said they’re the better stewards of natural and historical archeological assets and we said, ‘We beg to differ,’” Wooten explains. “And we went to get the study to say so.”
Chronicling human activity from the Native populations through Hispanic and Anglo settlers, the study brought to light the immense amount of anthropological history in the area. This presented a problem for the Army, in that they would have to preserve any archeological site on land they own under section 106 of the Historical Archeological Act.
“We felt like the area is so rich in cultural history that the Army would see how limited they would be by its mere existence and not want to expand,” Wooten said.
While these groundbreaking studies were going on behind the scenes, PCEOC was working hard at a grassroots level to curry support and make their argument.
“One of the key elements was the realization that we were going to be judged so carefully by the military, the media, by Congress, by the Senate, and everybody we asked to help,” says Wooten. “So we’re going to have to be perfectly on target. Our mission statement was calm, collected, and extremely accurate.
“The cowboy culture was put to the test right there and we all bought into it,” he continued. “We’re going to say it like it is and let it be weighed by its own merits.”
Other smaller, but no-less-significant strategies the PCEOC employed included countless media interviews, billboard purchases along Interstate 25, selling bumper stickers, and “Not 4 Sale” signs, which they posted on the highway frontages of their ranches. Funding came from local ranchers donating a calf every year, sale barns hosting benefit auctions, in-kind donations, and grants from foundations looking to support the cause.
The PCEOC also made a point to never hold meetings with the Army on an individual basis. They stressed that all meetings with the Army should be public. This tactic allowed the ranchers to maintain a united front and keep all statements on the public record.
At one meeting, the Army handed out a poorly produced map—Wooten described it as if it came out of a printer that was out of ink. No one could tell what land the Army was focusing on now. Kennie Gyurman, whose father suffered the debilitating stroke during The Taking, lost his composure. Shaking and near tears, he stood and confronted the Army officials, demanding they point out if his ranch was on this map. They couldn’t.
Passion like Kennie’s led to fighting on multiple fronts. Fellow board member Doug Holdread, the now-retired head of the art department at Trinidad State Junior College, dove into the military documents to uncover plans, look for missteps, and find ways to hold the Army accountable. As the Army would try to deny this action or that plan, PCEOC would confront and foil them with the Army’s own words and documentation.
“The documents were all redacted with a black marker,” Holdread explained. “There were bits of letters sticking out, so it was like a puzzle to figure out what words had been redacted. Some of that turned out to be significant. Like figuring out how many digits there were in certain numbers so we could get an idea of how big their plans were.”
Meanwhile, PCEOC got out in front of the public. They started with an expansive letter-writing campaign to various local officials. They gave presentations to school boards, civic clubs, and even to the nuns who went on to break into the nuclear weapons complex in Tennessee.
“The strategy [was] to get resolutions from any entity that will give you resolutions—school boards, chambers of commerce, county commissioners—and build that platform in each town.
“Pretty soon, you’ve got the county commissioners saying they need to be on the right side of this,” Grissom explains. “Then you go to the surrounding counties the same way and it happens quicker.”
Before long, the land battle reached the state level. That’s when local FFA chapters loaded up for trips to the capitol in Denver to testify before the state representatives. Completely by design, this became a regional issue—not a partisan one—and representatives from both sides of the aisle supported the PCEOC.
Two Colorado state bills, 1069 and 1317, were passed, adding some layers of protection to the ranchers.
The first bill withdrew the consent of the state of Colorado to the federal government to purchase, or through eminent domain, obtain land specifically for the expansion of PCMS. The other bill prohibits the state of Colorado from selling any state land for the purpose of PCMS expansion.
At the national level in 2008, Sen. John Salazar (D) and Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R)—armed with biological and historical studies and nearly unanimous local support—co-sponsored an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would withhold any funding for Pinon Canyon expansion on a year-to-year basis.
“That’s how we put them at a standstill,” Wooten says. “They got an overwhelming Congressional declaration to withhold funds and then a win—barely—in the Senate. We stopped the expansion by withholding funds. It’s pretty hard for Washington to ignore state-level bipartisan support for an issue.”
Not One More Acre! took the lead on the legal front. Lead by Jean Aguerre, they attacked in the courts. Their first move was a Freedom of Information Act request that exposed much of the Army’s plans they had previously tried to deny.
Next, N1MA! challenged that the Army’s usage of its existing site was in violation of the Army’s original environmental impact study. U.S. Senior District Judge Richard Matsch ruled that the original EIS was flawed and inadequate and then ordered the Army to go back and re-assess it.
“That was a phenomenal move to help shut down expansion,” Wooten says. “They could not go forward with expansion because they had a flawed EIS. They kept lots of pressure on them from a legal standpoint.”
The combined elements of the environmental and cultural studies, the state and national law passages, as well as N1MA!’s legal action had the Army on its heels. There were no willing sellers and the Army’s own actions—from wiggling through bureaucratic loopholes in expansion efforts to the actual damage being done to the natural and cultural assets on the current Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site—were publicly exposed for being conducted on shaky ground if not outright illegal.
In 2011, Army Secretary John McHugh gave Colorado Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet a letter assuring ranchers that expansion of PCMS was not in the Army’s five-year plan.
In 2013, the Army withdrew its expansion waiver—the one that Salazar and Musgrave’s bill withheld funds for—and Udall and Rep. Cory Gardner put an amendment in the 2014 Defense Authorization Act stating that PCMS can only be expanded in the future by an explicit vote of Congress.
So many people fought for the resistance effort on so many fronts that to comprehend it all is mind-boggling. Most of what the ranchers did, they did in a flurry of activity over a two-year period. From the commissioned studies, to the grassroots efforts, to the countless meetings, to the media relations, to local and statewide fundraising, to political resolutions, to legal action, many of these ranchers put their lives on hold to save their livelihoods.
“A lot of people donated a lot of hours,” Robertson said. “Any bureaucracy or entity that we were fighting against, they didn’t have the commitment for the after-hours work that we did. Being steadfast and focused were some of the things that brought us to this point.”
The new status gives the ranchers some comfort, but they’ve learned to not rely on the government’s assurances. While a depressed economy and severe drought have bubbled to the top of their concerns in recent years and the “Not 4 Sale” signs are faded and peeling, they are certain to remain vigilant should the Army’s priorities change—which is a distinct possibility with every new administration.
Of course, it won’t be hard to forget the threat. The sign on Highway 350 showing the entrance to the PCMS with its tanks looming large is a constant reminder, as are the folks who lost their ranches in the 1980s, many of who still work in the surrounding communities.
“Out of the darkness of all the evictions and losses, it turned out to be an asset to us,” Wooten said. “We learned from what took them down and we should never forget and honor those people who gave up what they gave up.”
That statement, not by accident, sounds an awful lot like how Americans pay homage to their military servicemen and women.
“The Army tried to play us off as unpatriotic and not wanting to support training of the troops,” Wooten says. “We came back and said, ‘Let’s get one thing straight, we support the men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan and we’re all about training for the troops. What we’re not about is the acquisition of private property without just cause. You, the Pentagon, and the Army—not the troops—have not made a justifiable case that the people of Colorado need to sacrifice 10 percent of their state for the military. If you can justifiably prove that lives will be spared, these patriots will walk away from their ranches.’”
Despite the legal wrangling and various tactics employed by both sides, the argument came down to something that simple: in the United States of America, you’d better have an undeniably justified reason to take private property. And while the actions the ranchers took to defend that right weren’t always simple, the resolve of people committed to an ideal is as effective now as it was when the country was founded.
“Be involved in our political process,” Grissom advises. “Before this, voting was the most involved I ever was. Now I care. I’ve learned to become a citizen. Being on that board was one of the best experiences of my life. Ultimately, our political process worked … exactly the way it should work in a representative government.”
Not remarkably, other groups in the state and across the country are looking at what the ranchers and other Southeastern Coloradoans accomplished. They’re calling it the Pinon Canyon Model, and holding it up as an effective way to stand up to the federal government.
Thomas Jefferson once said that the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. Maybe he’s right. But maybe, if we want to see change, we all just need to be a little more involved in the political processes in our own backyards. Maybe, like Grissom said, we need to become citizens.