A MOUNTAIN OF TROUBLE
part 1 of 2
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.
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.
The situation quickly generated a series of confrontations between Taylor and locals, both on and off his ranch. Taylor barricaded the roads to la sierra; someone shot his bulldozer full of holes. Taylor and two employees tangled with three Hispanic cowboys on his ranch and marched them into San Luis; one of the suspects was hospitalized, and Taylor was fined for assault.
Gene Martinez found out about the fuss when he came back to the valley from a tour in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. He went up to the mountain to collect some slabs of firewood--and ran smack into Taylor.
"He blocked the road," Martinez recalls. "I blocked his way, too. He had two of his hands with him. My kid brother was with me. He had a rifle and I had a pistol."
Scribbling in a notebook, Taylor beckoned him to his vehicle, Martinez says, "like he was God."
"I got out and unsnapped my weapon. He said, `Who are you and what are you doing here?' I said, `Who are you and what are you doing here?'
"He said, `For your information, I'm Jack Taylor, blah blah blah...' He had my license plate, and he wanted my name--`Tell me your name and you can come up here and get all the slabs you want.' I told him I didn't have a name.
"He's sitting there, and the notebook starts trembling in his hand. A punk with money, right?"
Taylor complained bitterly that the law in Costilla County was less than diligent in protecting Anglo property rights. He fared better in Denver's federal court, however. In 1965 Judge Hatfield Chilson ruled that sole title to the land had passed from Gilpin through his successors to Taylor. "Spanish-Americans cannot make claims to another's land based on old Mexican law," Chilson declared.
Taylor went on to register his title under Colorado's Torrens Act--an unusual statute that provides the registrant with virtually unassailable ownership. But in Costilla County, as Calvin Trillin once noted in The New Yorker, "a man sometimes owns only the land his neighbors acknowledge he owns."
"The people in the hills have never surrendered their rights," says Gene Martinez, who served in local law enforcement during the tense years that followed his first encounter with Taylor. "He brought in mercenaries and started shooting at people. Then the people started shooting back. Taylor actually said the white man was superior to the black and brown man. He didn't know that bullets don't discriminate."
On the night of October 15, 1975, several bullets ripped through the roof of Taylor's bedroom on the ranch. One shattered his left ankle. He left Colorado with a limp and ran the operation from his home in New Bern, North Carolina. The sniper was never caught, but Taylor had no doubts that locals were responsible.
"We know who did it, but we can't prove it," he told me several years ago. "People told us. I offered them a $25,000 reward to testify, but they wouldn't do it. When it comes to a face-down between them and an Anglo, they're gonna side with their blood kin every time."
Since Jack Taylor's death, tensions over the ranch have eased considerably; Zach Taylor has even permitted various local groups to use the land for picnics or religious celebrations. But the limited access to la sierra hasn't arrested the decline of the county's traditional agrarian economy, which was hurting even before Jack Taylor arrived. Small landowners on the fringe of la sierra had come to depend on the mountains for summer pasturage, wood for heat and building, even meat and fish for the dinner table. Today the only public land in the county is the vega, a 630-acre meadow on the edge of San Luis, the last trace of Beaubien's common lands.
Faced with dwindling options, the herederos have been compelled to sell off their herds or pack up altogether.
Economic desperation led to the formation of the Land Rights Council in 1978, and ultimately to the filing of the class-action lawsuit, which argues that Taylor hadn't provided proper notice to the herederos when he went about clearing the "cloud" on his title in the 1960s. Minimally funded from the outset, the suit was given little hope of success, but the recent 4-3 Colorado Supreme Court ruling ordering a hearing on the notice question has breathed new life into the legal battle.
Jeff Goldstein, the Denver attorney who has shepherded the LRC case since 1981, says the hearing is only the first step in seeking another trial on the merits of the heirs' claims, which would present more thorough legal and historical research than the original plaintiffs were able to muster in the 1960s. But even getting to that stage, he says, is cause for celebration.
"Obviously, the implication of setting aside a thirty-year-old judgment is astronomical--courts don't do that," he notes. "This is an extremely good opinion. It's a branch of government saying they're going to look at a human-rights issue, how people may have been ripped off thirty years ago. That's incredible, given the notions we normally have about private property."
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Anthony Vollack wrote that reopening the Taylor case "is counter to the public policy of this state because it creates uncertainty...and fails to keep title secure and marketable."
But that's precisely what the Land Rights Council is counting on: If nothing else, members say, the ruling could hamper Taylor's efforts to sell the ranch to outsiders and keep the price down for local acquisition. Some even figure the lawsuit is worth about $15 million in leverage--the difference between the state's offer, which was based on an appraisal that took into account the ongoing litigation, and Taylor's asking price.
The ruling has also given the Land Rights Council, an almost invisible organization during the years of endless appeals, new currency in San Luis.
"No one knows who speaks for the community," says Maria Mondragon-Valdez. "We all have our constituencies, and ours include a lot of people of few words, including the old-timers. But the Colorado Supreme Court knows who we are. If we win the lawsuit, we'll have a line of people from here to the state border waiting to get up there."
end of part 1
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