La Junta

Steve Wilson / Flickr - Creative Commons

The Colorado Department of Transportation Commission voted unanimously to approve $1 million to help preserve the Southwest Chief rail line in southern Colorado. It's part of a route that stretches from Chicago to Los Angeles.

The aging track needs major upgrades or Amtrak will have to reroute the line out of Colorado and parts of New Mexico and Kansas. The train stops in Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad, in southeastern Colorado.

Martha Perez-Sanz / KRCC (file photo)

Students in La Junta plan to visit Bent’s Old Fort Wednesday in order to virtually recreate its environment. KRCC’s Dana Cronin reports.
 

Students from Otero Junior College and La Junta High School are expected to take measurements of the site in order to recreate it on the popular computer game Minecraft.

A bill in Colorado’s Senate that seeks funding to help preserve Amtrak’s Southwest Chief route passed out of committee today on a 5-2 vote. 

This comes on the heels of a report from the state’s Southwest Chief Commission that says the original expected $40 million share to help save the long distance route has been knocked down to 8.91 million, due in part to a federal transportation grant and negotiations with BNSF Railway, the company that owns the tracks. 

Andrea Chalfin / KRCC

Explosions, drones, and full-brigade size exercises with armored vehicles are all a part of the Army’s proposed Enhanced Readiness plan for its Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site in southeastern Colorado. The goal is to get troops trained on new gear.  It’s a controversial plan that some say opens the door to expansion, a notion that’s long been a thorn in the side of many nearby residents.

The training grounds span around 235,000 acres between Trinidad and LaJunta. It’s bound by the Purgatorie River on the east and the Comanche National Grasslands to the north. Recreationally, the area around the Maneuver Site is known for canyons, wildlife, ruins, and dinosaur tracks.

Nearly 100 people packed a small meeting hall at the training site for the only scheduled public forum. They came from as far away as Boulder and as close as the adjacent tiny community of Tyrone to hear about the proposal and its projected environmental impacts.

Technologies and tactics are constantly evolving, according to Dan Benford, Director of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security at Fort Carson.  As such, Benford added, it’s important for soldiers to be able to train on equipment they’d use while deployed.

“When we put them in harm’s way,” said Benford, “they have to have that second nature reaction with their equipment.”

Fort Carson released a 430-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement [.pdf], or DEIS, that looks at proposed alternatives, including a continuation of existing operations, and an update to allow for Strykers - the new class of eight-wheeled armored vehicles. 

Then there’s the preferred plan, which the Army calls “Enhanced Readiness Training.”  This plan includes the Stryker vehicles, demolitions, and drones, among other components.

“We’ve got some other training that soldiers need to be able to do,” said Hal Alguire, the Director of Public Works for Fort Carson.  “So to use effectively the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site, we want to do those things.”

Among the findings, the DEIS lists potentially significant impacts to geology and soils, including loss of plant cover and erosion.  It also lists moderate impacts to noise, and minor impacts to air quality and cultural resources.

The DEIS isn’t enough for Jean Aguerre.  “It doesn’t make any sense that there’s no cumulative impacts,” Aguerre said during the public comment period.  She also invoked the memory of the 1930s Dust Bowl and the sensitive nature of the native plants in the area. 

“We got a soil analysis in this current DEIS, with absolutely no root analysis,” Aguerre said.  “The key to the short-grass prairie, as everybody in this room knows, is keeping that root system intact.”

Like Aguerre, most of the comments were critical of the Army and its plans for the remote Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site, ranging from wildlife and historical concerns, to simply requests for more time and meetings with easier access to provide public comment.

Trinidad Mayor Joe Reorda addressed the area ranchers who oppose the proposal.

“We support you,” he told the ranchers. “The city of Trinidad supports you.  But by God, we have to have somewhere to train.”

Many are concerned through, that allowing the higher intensity activity at the site would open the door to eventual expansion.  It’s a possibility that Garrison Commander Colonel Joel Hamilton downplayed in his opening remarks.

“For the record,” said Colonel Hamilton, “we are not about expansion of Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site.”

It’s also written into the DEIS that the proposal doesn’t require expansion.

That’s a point that Jim Herrell equates to having a coyote keep watch over a chicken house.  Herrell said at the meeting that continued expansion of the infrastructure at Pinon Canyon would lead to a Congressional authorization within seven years or less to acquire more land.

“And don’t you think there won’t be,” said Herrell.  “Then there will be a Congressman, probably from Texas, that will tack on an appropriations amendment to some crap to buy more land.  And everyone in this room in uniform will be gone.  And everyone in this room with a cowboy hat and boots that are pointed will be here, just a little older.”

In the face of this kind of distrust, Colonel Hamilton said it’s important to keep the dialogue going.  “It’s maintaining an open line of communication,” said Hamilton.  “We also heard the term ‘transparency’ thrown around this evening and we take it very seriously.”

Hamilton also mentioned the Southern Colorado Working Group, which is open to anyone. The group meets quarterly and works to coordinate military and community efforts throughout the region.  Hamilton says it helps to put a human face on the issues presented in the DEIS.

But for some, like Kennie Gyurman who lives in and has decades of history in the bordering community of Tyrone, there’s nothing the Army can say that will earn his trust.  Gyurman considers himself pro-military, but he says the Army knows what it wants.

“You just can’t believe them,” said Gyurman.  “But after you’ve dealt with them for a while, you kind of know what to expect. These meetings keep them from thinking they’ve got a way of doing what they want to do without any resistance.  This is resistance, even if it sometimes doesn’t help out a lot.”

Comments made at this recent meeting are being entered into the record, as are other comments provided through mail and online.  The last day to submit comments is December 15th.

Listen to the full public meeting here:
 

To make a comment on the DEIS, write to Fort Carson NEPA Program Manager, Directorate of Public Works Environmental Division, 1626 Evans Street Building 1219, Fort Carson, Colo. 80913-4362; or, send an email to usarmy.carson.imcom-central.list.dpw-ed-nepa@mail.mil

To inquire about the Southern Colorado Working Group, contact Fort Carson Community Relations at 719-526-1246.

Maggie Spencer / KRCC

Recipients of an annual federal transportation grant are expected to be announced this fall. As KRCC’s Tucker Hampson reports, officials in Southern Colorado are hoping the grant will help keep Amtrak’s Southwest Chief line on its current route.

The grant is known as the TIGER grant, and is part of a federal funding program that helps finance large transportation projects nationwide.

Dana Cronin / KRCC

The President and CEO of Amtrak rode the Southwest Chief line in a separate train through Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico on a Whistle-stop tour to talk about the future of the route.  KRCC’s Dana Cronin was in La Junta and has this report.
 

The Southwest Chief runs between Los Angeles and Chicago. The future of the route is in question, as the current rail lines require upgrades in order to maintain passenger rail speeds.

Maggie Spencer / KRCC

A new collaborative effort that crosses state lines has pledged more than $9 million as part of a grant application that would help keep Amtrak’s Southwest Chief on its current route through Southern Colorado.  KRCC’s Andrea Chalfin reports.
 

Martha Perez-Sanz / KRCC

La Junta, Colorado is about the 30th stop en route to Los Angeles from Chicago on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. As the Southwest Chief’s rails are aging and expensive repairs are needed, La Junta is at risk of being removed from the train’s historic route.
 

Downtown La Junta is sprinkled with cafes and small artisan shops. There’s the Otero Museum, which documents the history of the region, and the Koshare Indian Museum, which hosts native dance programs. Bent’s Old Fort is just eight miles from downtown.