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.

Some LRC members view the La Sierra Foundation as an attempt by "Main Street developers" to take control of the mountain and exploit it. "We're not speaking the same language," says Gloria Maestas, a retired teacher and daughter of Apolinar Rael, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, who died last year. "They want an empire. They're looking to get what they can out of that mountain."

But La Sierra's backers characterize their critics as a small group of "left-leaning radicals" who have unrealistic expectations of winning back the mountain for an exclusive group of settlers' descendants at the expense of everyone else in the county.

"They don't want any development whatsoever," sighs Maclovio Martinez, the county assessor and vice president of La Sierra Foundation. "I'm of the opinion that it's coming, whether we want it or not, and we might as well have a hand in controlling it."

Each side claims the other will ruin the mountain, given the chance. Both insist, though, that the mountain belongs in local hands, not the state's.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant Commission says the state initiative is still alive. "I think the majority of the community down there, if asked, would strongly support the recommendations of the commission," says Ken Salazar, former head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

Salazar has been weaving back and forth between the various San Luis factions in recent weeks, trying to determine the commission's next move. The contrary opinions he's received have led him to propose that the villages of southern Costilla County hold a referendum on the ranch: whether to litigate, pursue a local purchase or continue to work with the state.

"There's a need for the local community to develop a united strategy," he says. "I don't think the divisiveness is helpful at all."

Not helpful, but not unexpected, either. It's easy to regard the battle over the Taylor Ranch as a clash of cultures, the collision of Anglo notions of private property with century-old traditions of common use in the land grants of the Southwest. But it's also a clash of values within the much-romanticized culture of San Luis, which is more complex than the tourist brochures would suggest. The future may be arriving at helicopter speed, but people "down there" have very different ideas about how to hang on to the last vestiges of the past.

The Taylor Ranch looms over Gene Martinez's home outside the village of San Francisco, and water from the mountain's precious creeks irrigates his land. He points to the green slopes and shrugs.

"I was up there yesterday," he says. "I went camping, rode horseback--I do whatever I want. They put up a fence, and people tore it down."

Like most of his neighbors, rancher Martinez is an heredero--an heir or descendant of the Mexican families who settled in the area before the Civil War. And, like many of the herederos, Martinez continues to make some use of the mountain land, regardless of the niceties of Anglo law and "No Trespassing" signs.

"Who would catch me?" Martinez asks. "I know every nook and cranny of those hills. I grew up there. That's my backyard."

Before Jack Taylor came along, locals had treated la sierra as their backyard for generations. The tradition has its roots in the geopolitics of the 1840s, when the Republic of Mexico, eager to secure its northern frontier, awarded the million-acre Sangre de Cristo land grant to Narciso Beaubien and Stephen Luis Lee. Beaubien and Lee were killed in the Taos Revolt of 1847, and the land fell to Narciso's father, Carlos Beaubien, who picked up Lee's share for a mere $100.

To entice settlers, Beaubien offered small grants of land while setting aside certain common areas for grazing, wood-gathering and other uses. Surviving documents are vague on the matter, but several historians and legal experts say that la sierra was without question one of the common areas.

"Everything we know from the traditional history of the area indicates that such lands would not be considered for private ownership because they were for the use of all," says Marianne Stoller, a native of San Luis and professor of anthropology at Colorado College, who has become an "expert historical witness" for the plaintiffs in the LRC lawsuit.

Although the land became part of the United States following the Mexican-American War, the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo stated that Mexican property rights in the acquired territory "shall be inviolably respected." Beaubien's title to the Sangre de Cristo grant was confirmed by Congress in 1860; four years later Beaubien's heirs sold their interest in the grant to William Gilpin, Colorado's first territorial governor and foremost land speculator, with the understanding that certain "privileges" of the existing settlers would be protected.

Unfortunately, the settlers' privileges weren't spelled out with regard to la sierra. When Jack Taylor bought the land from some Denver businessmen for about $500,000 a century later, he was aware that the sellers had tolerated a little trespassing and poaching; in fact, his deed contained a caution that his title was possibly "subject to claims of the local people...to right to pasture, wood, and lumber and so-called settlements..." But the price was such a bargain--less than seven dollars an acre--that he figured he could handle any trouble that went with it.

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