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Choppers heading to Pinon Canyon

Fort Carson officials have decided that having a new combat aviation brigade of 113 helicopters and support troops conduct training at the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site won't do any permanent damage to the 238,000-acre training range northeast of Trinidad.

In a 600-page environmental assessment, Fort Carson officials said they would modify the route of helicopters flying from Fort Carson to Pinon Canyon in response to landowners' concerns.

But any environmental damage from training the brigade at Pinon Canyon could be repaired or mitigated, according to the report signed July 11 by the new garrison commander, Col. David Grosso.

The environmental report was first released as a draft in February. It looks at potential impacts from helicopter training at both Fort Carson and the Pinon Canyon range.

While Colorado lawmakers have supported having the Army base a new aviation brigade at Fort Carson for economic reasons, they also have become part of the ongoing deadlock between the Army and Southern Colorado ranchers over expanding the 238,000-acre Pinon Canyon range.

While the Army has dropped its bitterly opposed, four-year effort to add more acreage to the training site, its critics view the new aviation brigade as more Pentagon pressure to force the future expansion of the grassland and canyon training range.

"This report is just the Army putting a check in the box, saying it's had the required community meetings before it goes ahead with the training plan for the aviation brigade," said Lon Robertson, president of the Pinon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition.

Robertson noted that dozens of area residents testified or had filed written comments in opposition to allowing the aviation brigade to do training at Pinon Canyon.

While the Obama administration has issued a letter saying there would be no consideration of any expansion at Pinon Canyon for at least five years, the ranchers and groups that opposed the past expansion campaign aren't so certain.

They've viewed the basing of the helicopter brigade at Fort Carson, plus the Air Force's plan to do low-level training flights over Western Colorado and northern New Mexico, as more Pentagon pressure to include a bigger Pinon Canyon in future training.

"What might be working on our side are the budget cuts the Pentagon is now facing," Robertson said. "It's pretty expensive to put helicopters in the air for training missions." 

Jean Aguerre, of the Not 1 More Acre! opposition group, said the Army is pressing ahead with ramping up training at Pinon Canyon even though a federal district court ruled in 2009 that its environmental assessment to support more training was inadequate. In that court ruling, U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch said the Army's own reports showed it had significantly damaged the training range. 

"Every taxpayer knows that a finding of 'no significant impact' is ridiculous," Aguerre said in a statement Wednesday. "A new combat aviation brigade is the most lethal, high-tech integrated military weapons system in the history of the world."

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