10:27 pm - Sunday September 24, 2017

Down payment on the next Dust Bowl

If kids playing soccer can ruin drought-stricken grass, what will more
tanks do to ravaged Piñon Canyon?

Drought – the ancient curse of the Southwest – now threatens
Denver’s parks. The city recently announced that this winter’s
prolonged drought is forcing it to close its grass sports fields for
soccer and lacrosse in 80 to 100 parks until at least April 1 to
protect the dormant grasses.

“We don’t have a lot of moisture,” Parks spokesman Jeff Green said.
If we were to let a lot of activity start up, the fields are going
to get torn up and the grass will disintegrate.”

The closure followed an opinion of Prescription Root Zone, an
international sports turf consulting company based in Colorado Springs
that advised the city to close the fields to allow the grass that has
been dormant through the winter to restore itself.

“If play is allowed on the grass-dormant grasses, the turf will be
completely destroyed, and there is not enough sod in this region to
replace all that would be destroyed nor the money it would take to do
so, PRZ President Larry D. Musser wrote in a Feb. 14 letter to the
city.

No doubt about it – a few ninety-pound girls running about a soccer
field can really tear up dormant turf. Now, think about what a fleet
of 67-ton Abrams tanks swirling about the fragile grasslands of the
Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site (PCMS) will do to the threatened ecology of
southeast Colorado and adjacent regions that were savaged by the Dust
Bowl of the 1930’s.

The PCMS is semi-arid at the best of times, historically recording
annual precipitation of between 12 to 16 inches. Unfortunately,
these are far from the best of times. Colorado’s eastern plains, like
much of the nation, appear to be locked into one of the recurrent
droughts that have plagued the region since a 300-year drought
commencing in the 12th Century devastated Native American cultures,
including the Anasazi settlements.

The New York Times reports that the problem is afflicting most of
the nation: “Last summer’s drought, one of the worst in a century, has
continued through the winter. During January, 56 percent of the
contiguous U.S. was in drought, the highest January level since 1955.”
[click here for interactive]

The most wide-spread drought in more than a half century would seem
to be a very bad time to renew the assault on the fragile prairie of
southeast Colorado. Yet, that is exactly what the Army is doing. As
reported Feb. 25, 2013 in the Colorado Springs Gazette:

Nearly 4,000 soldiers with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 4th
Infantry Division are scheduled to begin a massive exercise this week
at the 235,000-acre training area in southeast Colorado, said Maj.
Chris Maestas, a brigade spokesman.

The training regimen scheduled at Piñon Canyon still calls for
exercises involving the counterinsurgency tactics soldiers honed in
Iraq and Afghanistan. But, in addition, soldiers will undergo
“decisive action” training – preparing to battle a major power using
tanks and artillery.

In the Gazette story, Army officials stressed their efforts to
minimize their impact on the PCMS saying soldiers aren’t likely to
fire live ammunition from weapons more powerful than a rifle. But
Jean Aguerre, head of the watchdog group Not 1 More Acre! warns that
what the Army itself describes as “high-intensity maneuvers” is “The
Pentagon’s down payment on the next Dust Bowl .”

Aguerre has solid reasons for her concern.

Fritz L. Knopf, an expert on the historical ecology of the Great
Plains, warns that, today we know much more about the ecological and
cultural heritage of the shortgrass prairie in the United States than
was known in 1980, when ranches were condemned to establish the Piñon
Canyon Maneuver Site. He notes that current state-of-the-science
opinion is that damage to shortgrass prairie (like those imminent in
the PCMS employments) is currently considered to be ecologically
irreversible, and comparable to massive “plow-outs” that ultimately
led to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.

I was on the public information staff of the U. S. military Academy
at West Point for two years during the Vietnam War, and know a little
about how the Army trains for war. I also frequently covered defense
issues during the 37 years I spent with The Denver Post. As such, I
have great concerns about the impacts of training at Piñon Canyon
Maneuver Site.

The Gazette says the Army discounts the risk of damaging the
fragile grasslands because “soldiers will be equipping their weapons
with lasers – a version of laser tag that spans miles and involves
tanks – to simulate large-scale battles.”

Actually, it’s ridiculous to compare high-speed maneuvers by heavy
armored vehicles to “laser tag.” The Abrams tank weighs more than 67
tons and can reach 35 miles an hour. The Bradley Fighting Vehicle
weighs 30 tons and can do over 40 mph. An eight-inch M-110
self-propelled howitzer weighs more than 31 tons. With such leviathans
churning about the prairie, it doesn’t take live ammunition to destroy
the fragile grasses extensive root systems and open the way for a
renewed round of Dust Bowl conditions in which dust raised from the
Piñon Canyon site could destroy regional ranches and national
grasslands.

The Army talks a lot about its effort to “Transform” its force
structure into smaller, more flexible and mobile units. But if
anything, the emphasis on such mobility only guarantees catastrophic
destruction to the fragile diversity of the grasslands, people who
live in the region and taxpayers who are charged hard-earned dollars
for the wreckage. That’s why it’s important to remember that in 2009
the Federal District Court threw out Transformation at Piñon Canyon
Maneuver Site saying, “The [Army’s own] reports show that even limited
training exercises have had severe environmental consequences.”

The ecological difference between the temporary inconvenience now
facing Denver soccer players and the looming disaster at Piñon Canyon
Maneuver Site is that Denver Parks and Recreation can turn on water
(piped from numerous mountain reservoirs) to salvage/restart the
bluegrasses for people to play on this summer. The shortgrass prairie
will continue to disappear as more and more acreage is lost to the
more severe mechanized destruction of basal crowns and roots of
drought-resistant, native grasses.

Denver is closing carefully maintained and manicured parks because
the grass can’t stand the pounding of kids playing soccer? But we
don’t worry about tanks and self-propelled artillery racing about
Colorado’s irreplaceable shortgrass prairie?

That doesn’t begin to make sense.

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