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Pinon Canyon expansion endangering historic site

by Guy Blasi

PIÑON CANYON, LAS ANIMAS COUNTY-  In an announcement last week, Colorado Preservation Inc. (CPI) named a Piñon Canyon Army maneuver site) as one of this year’s top ten endangered historical sites.  The Department of Defense on behalf of the Army at Fort Carson controls Brown Sheep Camp.  The land for the camp was originally purchased by Samuel Taylor Brown in 1882.  Brown’s business partner and eventual son-in-law was Julius Gunter, who is best known as Colorado’s 21st governor.

    Governor Gunter inherited Brown’s Sheep Camp in 1917 and was active in the operation and management of the ranch until his death in 1940, by which time he and his wife Elizabeth had accumulated over 26,000 acres.  Several structures remain at the camp’s headquarters, including a bunkhouse, several homes, a garage, working corrals and a large two-story adobe barn that is widely considered to be one of the finest of its type in the region.  Also, there is a wood-framed barn with an interior covered in drawings, brands and names added over decades.  This collection is considered rare and significant in the world of folk art.  It is also an important documentation of the story of Brown’s Sheep Camp and of the ranching community in the Purgatory River region of southeast Colorado.

    In the early 1980s, the Army at Fort Carson started acquiring land here in southeast Colorado in order to develop a live fire maneuver site for training.  The owners of Brown’s Sheep Camp at the time refused to sell and the land was eventually forced by the use of eminent domain and condemned.  The Army says it has made an effort to protect the buildings by constructing a fence, but maintenance of the structures has been lacking.

    Many of the roofs are in poor condition, jeopardizing the structural integrity of the buildings and the drawings on the interior of the wood-framed barn.  Dense vegetation has been allowed to grow around the buildings, increasing the fire risk in an area that suffered from a devastating wildfire in 2008.

    Though the ranch is determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, the Army has been reluctant to allow a formal listing to proceed. Supporters who want to preserve Brown’s Sheep Camp hope that the Army can be convinced to cooperate with Colorado Preservation Inc. and implement a long range maintenance and preservation plan that will benefit all historically significant structures on the maneuver site.  They also hope to document the folk art drawings in the wood-framed barn.

    Other endangered historical sites in the top ten in the state include the following:  State Capitol Dome; Estes Park Elkhorn Lodge, the state’s oldest continuously run hotel; the Grand Junction railroad depot; and the Columbine Valley.