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Soldiers in today's U.S. Army can engage the enemy at greater distances than ever before due to new computers and weapons systems. That means they need bigger training ranges. Colorado's Fort Carson is already the Army's second largest training base and it now wants to annex an additional 650 square miles of prairies and canyons. It would mean displacing scores of ranching families and taking big bites out of the economies of surrounding towns. From member station KRCC in Colorado Springs, Eric Whitney reports.
ERIC WHITNEY: Fort Carson's headquarters and weapons ranges encompass 215 square miles of scrubby hills and valleys where tanks, helicopters and thousands of troops practice battlefield tactics.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
WHITNEY: About two hours drive south from its main base, Fort Carson owns another 350 square miles on the wide open prairies of southeastern Colorado. That's where these soldiers are guarding a mock roadside checkpoint in an exercise designed to replicate conditions in Iraq.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
WHITNEY: This is the Pinion Canyon maneuver site, where inside a replica forward operating base, or FOB, Major Milford Beagle explains that the vast undeveloped terrain here gives soldiers a realistic taste of what they're likely to see in a real life combat theater.
Major MILFORD BEAGLE (U.S. Army): To be in a vehicle that's not impeded and go from the FOB and just make this complete loop all the way back around is going to take you a good couple of hours, and you're not going to find that at Fort Carson. And again, it's common in theater, so it's a very good replication of space.
WHITNEY: Pinion Canyon is also an ideal distance from Fort Carson headquarters, officials say, far enough away to make convoy and communication challenges realistic, but close enough to rotate soldiers through quickly and economically. But the training area is surrounded by working cattle ranches.
Unidentified Woman: Seventy-six steers and two bulls.
WHITNEY: Today, three generations of the Robertson family are herding this year's crop of calves into semi trucks for shipment to a buyer.
(Soundbite of cows)
WHITNEY: Laun Robertson(ph), who's in charge, doesn't know if his ranch is in the Army's sights.
Mr. LAUN ROBERTSON (Cattle rancher): Well, it's almost like a disease, not knowing what it is. It's - you need to know what you're up against.
WHITNEY: Fort Carson's plan calls for acquiring nearly half a million acres of land adjacent to its present training site. Robertson estimates that would mean about 200 ranches would disappear. Exactly which parcels the Army wants though is unknown. It's released a map to the public showing a million acre circle from which it will choose. Robertson says he thinks the Army is deliberately withholding information to keep the opposition off balance.
Mr. ROBERTSON: And the less they say and the less they give us will - the less opportunity I guess they think we'll have to fight it, but I think they're going to be surprised.
Ms. KAREN EDGE (Spokeswoman, Fort Carson): If this expansion was not critical to U.S. national security, we would not even be trying to do that.
WHITNEY: Karen Edge is a spokeswoman for Fort Carson. She says they prefer to buy from willing sellers, but that they'll use their power to condemn land if they have to.
Ms. EDGE: We are responsible for training soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines - if training those soldiers who are going to war and fighting the battle in Iraq and in countries away from American to keep that war from coming to us is not vital to national security, I don't know what else is.
WHITNEY: Eighty miles away from Robertson's ranch, in the town of Trinidad, Mack Loudon(ph) runs a feed mill and ranch supply store. Lately he's been selling a lot of signs that ranchers post on their fence lines, saying this land not for sale to the Army.
Mr. MACK LOUDON (Trinidad Resident): Almost to a person out there, if we thought in our own mind that our land was needed to save the United States, they probably wouldn't even sell it. They would give it to the Army if it meant saving the United States. We haven't been convinced of that and I'm not sure we're going to be.
WHITNEY: Trinidad and the other sizable town in the area, La Junta, stand to take big economic hits if the mainstay ranch economy here is bitten into. Even the Army admits its expansion is not expected to bring any economic benefit. But worse than that, says Loudon, would be the loss of the cherished family ranching way of life.
Mr. LOUDON: If people are sent to the seven winds over this situation, why, that's part of America that has died, and I'm not sure that I want to turn loose of it and I hope America doesn't want to turn loose of that sort of culture either.
WHITNEY: American's will have a chance to weigh in on the trade-off between national security and family ranching in the near future, as Fort Carson prepares an environmental and socioeconomic study of its Pinion Canyon expansion plan. Once that plan is complete, it'll be up to Congress to decide whether to appropriate the well over $100 million it would take to buy the ranchers out. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in Colorado Springs.
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