A MOUNTAIN OF TROUBLE

FOR YEARS THE LEGAL BATTLE OVER THE TAYLOR RANCH PITTED THE LOCALS AGAINST A WEALTHY OUTSIDER. NOW THEY'RE FIGHTING THE STATE--AND EACH OTHER.THIS LAND IS MY LAND FOR SALE: 77,000 ACRES. COLORFUL HISTORY. EASY ACCESS TO LOCAL RANGE WAR. INQUIRE WITHIN.

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Maria Mondragon-Valdez paces back and forth before her kitchen window, cursing the helicopter outside. The copter glides over the humps of sagebrush behind her house, up the flanks of the thickly forested mountains above, then back to the town of San Luis, oblivious to the damnation she's hurling at it. This goes on for hours.

"Media event." "Circus." "Fiasco." These are some of the milder words Mondragon-Valdez uses.

It is Saturday, February 5, 1994, the day of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant Commission's grand tour of the Taylor Ranch. A pack of special guests from around the state--legislators, bureaucrats, reporters--have descended on the San Luis Valley to get a good look at the land locals call la sierra: a remote, 77,000-acre sweep of alpine meadows, steep timber and snowcapped peaks stretching across the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo range, from southeast of San Luis to the New Mexico state line.

Tours by air and land leave on the hour. Some of the visitors wear bright parkas or safari jackets and tote fancy cameras. "Yuppies!" exclaims Mondragon-Valdez, invoking the name of a species rarely sighted in rural, predominantly Hispanic Costilla County.

A few weeks earlier, the commission had issued a report recommending that the State of Colorado purchase the Taylor Ranch. Part of the land would be transformed into a state park, to be managed jointly by state and local officials--a unique arrangement that would allow nearby residents special access to the mountains for grazing, wood gathering, camping, hunting and fishing.

At the time the proposal seemed like the answer to the state's oldest and most rancorous range war. Area ranchers and farmers, descendants of the first non-Indian settlers in Colorado, had been fighting for the right to use the mountains ever since North Carolina lumberman Jack Taylor purchased the last unfenced portion of la sierra in 1960 and began ejecting trespassers. The dispute had dragged on and on in the courts, occasionally flaring into violence. The commission's plan promised to restore locals' claims of "historic use rights" and mend the often-fractious relationship between the state and Costilla County, one of the poorest counties in the country.

But by the time the helicopter arrived, the fragile coalition of state and local interests that made up the commission was beginning to unravel. For Mondragon-Valdez, an outspoken environmental activist and member of the commission, the chopper was part of the problem.

"I kept telling them it was a bad idea," she says now. "People around here have bad feelings about helicopters because of the raid."

On March 6, 1989, a U.S. Customs helicopter buzzed the valley at dawn as 151 state and federal wildlife officers swept through Costilla County, arresting 23 residents and issuing citations to dozens more for poaching. The two-and-a-half-year undercover investigation had been sparked in part by complaints from wealthy Anglo landowners, including representatives of the Taylor Ranch, seeking to establish private hunting preserves. Although a panel of inquiry appointed by Governor Roy Romer defended the operation against charges of overkill and racism, many people in the county still regard "the sting" and "the raid" as affronts to the community, wounds that haven't quite healed.

Now here was the commission proposing that valley residents work with the Division of Wildlife to manage the 2,500 head of elk on la sierra. And here was another damn helicopter--a symbol, in some eyes, of the state's lack of sensitivity to local customs and concerns.

Shortly after the helicopter tours, Mondragon-Valdez and Charlie Jacquez, president of the Land Rights Council--a group representing a hundred plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to restore local use rights on the Taylor Ranch--withdrew from the commission, citing "concern about any partnership arrangement with the State." Their departure was quickly dismissed as the move of a few dissidents; but subsequent events have further clouded the issue and dimmed any hopes of a quick resolution to the conflict.

In March the ranch's executor, Zachary Taylor--the son of Jack Taylor, who died in 1988--rejected the state's offer of $15 million to purchase the land, standing fast on a previously announced price of $30 million. The land reportedly continues to be shopped to private parties, including timber interests. (Taylor did not respond to an interview request from Westword.)

Any prospective sale, however, may be complicated by continuing litigation. In May the Land Rights Council won its first significant victory in its thirteen-year quest to challenge Taylor's title to the land, when the Colorado Supreme Court sent the case back to Costilla County for hearings.

The high court's decision has emboldened members of the LRC, who fired off a letter to Governor Romer asking that he disband the commission while they pursue their rights in court. The governor has yet to reply; in the meantime, another group of civic leaders calling itself the La Sierra Foundation has started raising funds to buy the land, with or without the state's help--touching off an acrimonious debate in the valley over which group truly reflects the will of the community.

Far from solving the problem, the state's effort to buy the Taylor Ranch seems to have driven a wedge of confusion into Costilla County. Father Pat Valdez, the popular San Luis parish priest, suggests it's possible to support both the LRC lawsuit and La Sierra's fundraising efforts--"We need to present the people with different options," he says--but the rivalry between the two groups is bitter and intense.

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