The Army is seeking approval from county commissioners to engage in unmanned aircraft activities that would extend into the borders of Otero County, but commissioners aren't satisfied with the information the Army provided about the planned activities.
Commissioners approved the signing of a letter at the Monday Board of County Commissioners meeting addressed to Cultural Resources Manner Jennifer Kolise at the Fort Carson Army installation.
The letter informed Kolise and the Army that commissioners "do not concur with the Army's findings of no adverse effects" in regard to historic structures and properties within the Army's defined flight area, including a portion of the Santa Fe Trail.
"This is a protected site from La Junta to Delhi in the Army's documentation, however, the SFT is seemingly ignored and omitted from the map through the designated STYX route of Delhi and beyond, blatantly ignoring the trail as it travels southwest toward New Mexico," says the commissioners letter.
The Army sought approval to operate an unmanned aircraft called M1QC Gray Eagle, in addition to other aircraft activities they did not elaborate on, in a Historic Preservation Section 106 analysis sent to commissioners.
In their letter of response, commissioners took issue with the fact that the Army apparently omitted a major feature of the Gray Eagle drone in its analysis provided to Otero County: The capacity to carry four Hellfire air-to-ground missiles.
That is not all that the Army failed to disclose.
Commissioner John Hostetler raised the point that the Army has has experienced at least 54 engine mishaps with the Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft, which has costed the Army over $2 million in damages.
The commissioner's letter elaborates, citing a 2018 article from Defense News that reports at least 54 mishaps with the Gray Eagle occurred between 2011 and 2017, with at least four of those incidents being labeled "Class A" accidents, or accidents in which the whole unmanned aircraft was destroyed or the accident totaled at least $2 million in damages.
"The commissioners received a letter from the Otero County Historic Preservation after they received the 106 (analysis)," said County Administrator Amy White-Tanabe on Monday. "Long story short, you'll be able to read what the commissioners felt: That the Army was negligent on giving enough information, they left out a big section of the Santa Fe Trail in their report altogether.
"And we also don't have a good plan for if they evacuate their fuel over the land or a drone happens to crash into the land, or a flight for life (air vehicle), division of wildlife, there's lots of other things."
The letter commissioners approved signature of on Monday was distributed after the meeting to U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, Colorado Sen. Larry Crowder and Rep. Brianna Buentello, Pueblo and Huerfano County Commissioners, the History Colorado preservation officer, the advisory council of historic preservation, which Tanabe said was a D.C.-based group, the Otero County Historic Preservation Board and the Army itself.
So what happens if the Army doesn't respect the commissioners' request to reevaluate their proposed unmanned flight activities?
"They move on," said Goodwin. "Usually what happens is that the state historical activity looks at Otero County because we're COG, which means we are a certified local government, and they look for us to control our own destiny having to do with historical resources."
The State Historic Preservation Office of Colorado has final discretion in approving or denying the Army's proposed activities, Goodwin said. The county can't really force the historic preservation office's hands, either, if it decides the Army doesn't need to pay attention to the county's concerns.
Goodwin said if that becomes the case the county would have to pursue other avenues, but he didn't elaborate on what those options could be.
Not 1 More Acre, a group out of Las Animas County, also issued a letter to the Army protesting its proposed activities.
The discussion wrapped up with Goodwin explaining why he wants to nip the Army's activities in the bud now before they escalate later.
"They have that facility (Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site) down there, they have the right to use it. But this particular point, they've agreed it should stay in historical usage, and now all of a sudden we're getting expanded. There's no facility to land that aircraft or to fuel that aircraft in Pinon Canyon.
"All of a sudden they are going to be leaving from Colorado Springs, Fort Carson, flying down there, doing something. ... You eat an elephant one bite at a time," Goodwin warned.
"The first time, we fly over it. The next time, we need a place to land. Next time, we need a place to house it. The next time, we need a fuel stop. The next time, we need ... it just grows."
If for no other reason, Goodwin said, the Army should step back and allow the public of Otero County time to comment and participate in the discussion. It's what the process is there for in the first place, he said.