It was a packed house at the Otero County Courthouse for the Southern Colorado Working Group on Wednesday.

People from all over the southern half of the state gathered to talk about the Fort Carson and the Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site. This working group started around 10 years at Fort Carson with the purpose of having a conversation of the key stakeholders at the fort and the surrounding community.

“And then we moved it down into Pinon in the Trinidad area and this is the first time we’ve done it in La Junta. But it’s always been about having a regularly scheduled forum where we can get together, be transparent, have conversations, build relationships and have an understanding of what we’re doing at Fort Carson,” Chief of the Plans Office at Fort Carson, Christy Gary said.

This effort is broken down by three different areas of focus which encompass training, community and stewardship. The first and most jam packed portion of the meeting began with a focus on training. This discussion was led by Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security Dan Bedford, who encouraged attendees to ask questions throughout his presentation.

“Over the 10 years that this has been in place, I’ve seen a lot of projects to manage the training lands, especially the wildlife on Pinon Canyon, come out of the public forum where ideas were presented to us that we incorporated and placed in Pinon Canyon,” Bedford said.

One example he gave was the water for wildlife effort where they took old well sites and incorporated solar panels on them to provide water. As for the training itself, Bedford started with the training schedule.

He couldn’t give the specific days that the training would take place and said some things on the schedule could change. However, for the month of January they will be holding 10 different training exercises ranging from Air Operations to eat/sleep/hygiene training.

“Looking at some of the training, pistol qualifications, rifle qualifications, grenade launchers, machine gun qualifications has a lot to do with live fire and has to do with dangers in the area we’re having with fire risks. What are the efforts to mitigate the risks of fire?” Otero County Commissioner Keith Goodwin asked.

Bedford responded by saying that they use surface danger zones at the canyon which are mathematical calculations of where a bullet could land no matter what. Giving the stat of a one in a million chance that a bullet will escape outside of that zone.

“We mow our surface danger zones, we have fire breaks around our surface danger zones and we also have on range nine, the fire department has done an outstanding job of removing all of the fuel load,” he said.

They also don’t fire any pyrotechnics when there is fire danger, which means they don’t use things like flares, smoke or tracer ammunition.

“So every single morning, 365 days a year we make a weather and conditions based call on what ammunition are allowed to be fired that day,” Col. Brian Wortinger said.

With all the talks about live fire on the training site Otero County Preservation Officer Rebbecca Goodwin brought up the history of live fire on the site.

“The 1980 environmental impact statements specifically said there would never be live fire and that was promised to the community by the garrison commander in writing,” Goodwin said.

Bedford responded by saying that he has never seen this letter before but he would like to see a copy of it at some point.

“I’ve been at Fort Carson for 32 years and I’ve learned the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process pretty well and I understand NEPA is a living, breathing thing that can change,” Bedford added “The EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) doesn't say never, it doesn't say that we promise, it says no live fire.”

On Sept. 11, 2001, he said that they had a need to introduce small arms live fire training at Pinon Canyon to support separate brigades from Oklahoma, Oregon and Arkansas.

During this time he said that they didn’t receive much feedback from the public about this decision. However, Goodwin countered by stating that at the time they were too busy fighting expansion to stop them from introducing the live fire training.

“NEPA evolves. What we said in 2015, if the army introduces new weapon systems, new tactics, new capabilities, we may have to do NEPA again to try to keep up with those tactics, techniques and capabilities to keep our soldiers trained,” Bedford said.

Col. Woerininger said that they need to work harder on communicating what they’re doing because of the nature of the ever evolving NEPA process.

“If that is not understood in the community, then that’s our failing,” he said.

Keith Goodwin said that how you read something and interpret something could be different from how someone else reads and interprets a piece of writing. And by having conversations like the ones at the work group could help give everyone a better understanding of what's going on.

“How you interpret those could be plain for the guy that wrote it but unclear to the person that’s reading it,” Goodwin said.

In other news from the meeting Col. Wortinger said that this past week was the first time in 15 years that Fort Carson has had all of it’s brigades home at one time. Normally they always have at least one brigade outside the country.

They also discussed the route which will take their MQ-1C Gray Eagle Unmanned Aircraft System from Fort Carson to Pinon Canyon Maneuver Site. The aircraft has no weapons system and will not land at Pinon Canyon. Instead the aircraft will fly to Pinon Canyon and then redirect its course back to Fort Carson, it’s route won’t take it over large population centers during its expedition.

They also gave updates on conservation efforts at Pinon Canyon, where they gave brief summaries of their surveys on the reptile, bat, raptor, golden eagle, rodent, prairie dogs, burrowing owls, acoustic bird and nightjar populations. Most populations have remained stable except the nightjars whose numbers have been declining not just at the canyon but nationally, as well.

The next Southern Colorado Working Group will be held in Trinidad on March 19, 2020, a venue or time for the meeting has yet to be determined.