Longform

A MOUNTAIN OF TROUBLE

part 2 of 2
Sitting in his law office 36 floors above downtown Denver, Ken Salazar uncorks a speech he's aired frequently in the past few months. The Taylor Ranch, he says, is "a monument to the history of the Southwest and the coming together of two cultures." There is "an economic and cultural and historical impetus" for resolution of the conflict.

"I have no regrets about having gotten involved in this," he says. "I always prided myself on being a problem-solver, and we already have accomplished a lot."

Formerly the governor's chief legal advisor and one of the most prominent Hispanics in state politics, Salazar has followed events in San Luis closely for years. He was a vocal critic of the undercover poaching investigation--which, he says, he didn't learn about until the day of the raid.

Since then, Salazar has been involved in various state efforts to assist economic development in the valley, including failed discussions between Zach Taylor and state and federal officials over a proposed purchase of la sierra by the U.S. Forest Service in 1990 and 1991. He was the logical point man for any state initiative on the ranch and drafted the executive order last fall creating the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant Commission, naming himself as chairman.

On paper, the commission was an impressive fusion of federal, state and community interests. Its 22 members included three state legislators, Division of Wildlife and national and state park officials, as well as ten "locals," including the mayor of San Luis, a county commissioner, Father Pat and representatives of various economic-development and citizens' groups.

The blue-ribbon character of the panel seemed to ensure that its recommendations would carry substantial weight. Yet the commission's report was hardly off the presses before some members were seeking to distance themselves from it. Even if the commission's work hadn't stalled when Taylor balked at the state's offer, there were plenty of other stumbling blocks ahead.

The first problem had to do with the composition of the group itself. Salazar defends the commission as "broadly representative" of valley interests. But he says he was unaware, until a reporter pointed it out to him, that he had appointed three sets of brothers-in-law to the panel.

Costilla County politics can be a byzantine arrangement of blood and marital ties among a few powerful families: The county administrator (who serves on the state commission) is married to a county commissioner's niece and is the brother-in-law of the head of the Vega Board (another member of the commission), whose cousin happens to be a member of the Colorado Wildlife Commission (ditto), who is the brother-in-law of the head of the Costilla County Citizens for Better Government (ditto)--and that's only a partial accounting.

While most of the locals on the commission are herederos, few are actively involved in the lawsuit, and critics felt the panel should have included more people who depend on farming and ranching for their livelihood. "Main Street developers and politicians were making decisions for people up in the hills," says Glenda Maes, a Land Rights Council boardmember who monitored the commission's meetings.

Other concerns emerged as the locals struggled to reach an accord with park and wildlife officials on what Salazar calls the "structure of governance" for the ranch. The commission report, hammered out in just ninety days, is understandably vague as to how many acres would be set aside for a state park, or how much timber, pasture and elk would be reserved for local use. But such details are at the heart of whether the land could be jointly managed.

Bruce McCloskey, deputy director of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, says the commission achieved a "comfort level" on key issues of wildlife management. But Jim Durr, a Fort Collins attorney who is writing a book about the poaching raid, believes that any partnership between the state and local subsistence hunters--many of whom don't see poaching as a big deal, as long as the meat goes to feed the family--would be a rough ride.

"The report says, we're going to respect your values, but it's the Division of Wildlife who will really be the manager of the resource," Durr says. "Just see who has the power a few years from now, who's deciding the level of use."

Others say that locals' notions of recreation on the mountain and the state park model aren't compatible, either. "There would always be friction," says Mondragon-Valdez. "The park service has certain hours, they don't allow beer, you can't party all night. We used to go up there with our entire family, have a big bonfire, stay as late as we want--you think we're going to go into a state park and do that?"

Mondragon-Valdez, who runs an alternative energy consulting firm with her husband, Arnold, would like to see the mountain reserved for low-impact local use. She speaks with horror of the kind of "gentrification" and "amenity tourism" a state park might attract, from trailer hookups to burger palaces, mountain bike shops and real estate speculators.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast