Monday, March 10, 2008

Texas ranchers, Army work together

Fort Hood has mixed cattle grazing, war training since 1954.


Cattle and cannon fire are a poor mix, but ranch families and the Army have been mixing them together on 200,000 acres at Fort Hood, Texas, for more than 50 years.

Home of the III Corps and the 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood is the Army's largest armor training post, covering 217,000 acres just north of Killeen, Texas. The post was established in the early days of World War II when the Army was racing to prepare for war overseas and needed training bases quickly.

So the War Department condemned the ranches and farms of some 300 families to create then-Camp Hood in the cedar-covered hill country between Austin and Waco. The Army expanded the post again during the Korean War (1950-53).

"My family lost land both times," said Steve Manning, a rancher and member of the Central Texas Cattlemen's Association, an exclusive group of ranchers whose families were evicted to make Fort Hood. "When the Army expanded the post during the Korean War, it reached out to the landowners and agreed to let them continue to graze cattle on the land. It was sort of a package deal and we've been doing that since 1954."

Which is why some 3,000 cattle roam - year in and year out - the same grassy hills as M1A2 Abrams battle tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. It's an unnatural but forced sharing of the land.

"I think you'll find this is the only place in the country where the Army allows this," Manning agreed.

In Southeastern Colorado, the Army and area ranchers have been at odds for two years now over a plan to expand the 238,000-acre Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site northeast of Trinidad. The Army claims it needs another 414,000 acres to help support some 10,000 additional troops being based at Fort Carson. Many of the surrounding ranchers have bluntly replied that they already lost land to the Army in the 1980s and they aren't selling or giving any more. Period.

To the Army's surprise, the ranch community mobilized both state and federal lawmakers last year to block the expansion thus far - even getting language in the 2008 federal budget to prevent the Army from spending any money on the expansion this year, including for preliminary plans and studies.

Right now, the Army is preparing reports for Colorado Sens. Ken Salazar and Wayne Allard, justifying why it wants more land at Pinon Canyon and what economic help it can offer to protect the region's ranching economy. That's usually when Fort Hood gets mentioned as a possibility - an option that the Army's civilian leaders have told lawmakers could be discussed once Congress agrees to let the expansion process begin with an environmental study.

Officially, it's "inappropriate to speculate" on what the Army might do, before the required expansion studies are conducted, according to Lt. Col. Jim Rice, the current chief of Fort Carson's training and operations. Rice is overseeing the expansion project.

Down at the boot level, though, the Army does not like mixing cattle ranching and war training. Fort Carson officials have told the public at previous meetings they do not envision sharing the Pinon Canyon site as a realistic answer for either the Army or ranchers. It is one of the few things both sides have agreed on.

But then, cattle grazing at Fort Hood was a shotgun wedding of sorts.

"Fort Hood is an aberration," said Corwin Brown, a Pinon Canyon-area ranch manager and part of the Pinon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition. He recently visited Fort Hood to look at the mixture of cattle grazing and military operations. Part of a delegation from the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, Brown said the Army let the delegation watch a training exercise as part of their tour.

"The Army explained that before they can use a firing range, they clear off any cattle," he said. "If the cattle wander back, they have to stop training and go clear them off again. The range officers made it clear they wish there weren't any cattle on the post."

It's not ideal, but Manning said the Fort Hood ranchers have learned to work closely with the Army over the years.

"I grew up raising cattle around tanks and trucks and helicopters," he said, noting he also has ranchland off the post. "It's what we're used to. Sure, we occasionally lose animals because of the Army. But we just figure that into the cost of doing business."

The relationship can be as free-roaming as one might imagine. There is only one perimeter fence at Fort Hood, so the cattle - bulls, cows and calves - wander all over the 200,000-acre training ground. Manning said the families with grazing rights keep between 2,000 and 3,500 animals on the post, depending on the year.

Brown countered that Colorado ranchers would be bewildered at the notion of going into open range to sort out their cattle from animals wearing ear-tags for other families - which is what the Fort Hood ranchers do.

"I just don't see that kind of grazing happening at Pinon Canyon," he said. "And letting 2,000 or 3,000 head of cattle graze isn't much economic benefit if they are divided up among (80) families," he said.

The Texas ranchers have been an unexpected ally to the Army in recent years. Live-fire exercises have caused numerous wildfires that have burned down large areas of wild bird habitat on the post, prompting U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials to begin investigating the status of two endangered species of birds on Fort Hood. Afraid they could both lose access to land, the ranchers and the Army have worked together to create a bird-trapping program and conservation program on surrounding private lands that has staved off federal intervention.

But the cooperation has its limits. When the Army wanted to expand the post by 70,000 acres in the mid-1970s, the surrounding landowners - including the Central Texas Cattlemen's Association - blocked the expansion. Fort Hood was big enough, landowners said.

"I understand how the people in Colorado feel," Manning said. "I wouldn't want to lose any more of my land to the Army either. But I suspect the Army is going to be there at Fort Carson for a good long time, so they may have to figure out a way to work together."

Brown said that the Army offering ranchers grazing leases on Pinon Canyon may sound better than condemning land through eminent domain, but the end result would be the same - ranchers losing their property, where currently more than 10,000 cattle graze.

"Taking away 95 percent of an entire area's economy and replacing it with 'leasing and more troops' is not a win-win situation, nor is it realistic," Brown wrote in his report on Fort Hood. "There is no way to offset the loss to the communities and state's economies should this be allowed to happen."

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