Ken Salazar's plans for tourism in San Luis Valley generates protests

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Two weeks ago, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar surfaced in Alamosa, surrounded by state leaders, to present the results of a federal study aimed at promoting tourism and conservation in the San Luis Valley. The National Park Service's study pushes for conservation easements, recreational trails and landmark designations for many of the area's cultural treasures -- but somebody forgot to check with the locals about some of the nominated sites.

As it turns out, not everybody in the crosshairs of the NPS survey is enthused about having historic local structures, including the meeting place of a private religious society, included in tourist brochures promoting the so-called "American Latino Heritage." They question how the selections were made and the seeming rush to tout tourism and development at the risk of other cultural and economic priorities.

The most vocal critics of the plan have been Arnold and Maria Valdez, longtime environmental and political activists who run a design and preservation consulting firm in the town of San Luis. Arnold, an heir of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant and land use planner whose master's thesis deals with Hispanic vernacular architecture in the area, wrote a lengthy letter to NPS assistant regional director Greg Kendrick expressing his concern about how the survey was conducted. He also questioned its emphasis on conservation deals with large landowners -- including owners of the former Taylor Ranch, which was involved in a lengthy legal battle over local access rights.

"The broader community is unaware of what is occurring," Valdez writes. "You are dealing with heirs of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant who have been awarded historical use rights on the property by the Colorado Supreme Court and are preparing their own land use management plan."

Valdez is offended that the NPS is considering making a tourist destination of the San Francisco Morada, a kind of penitente chapel, and ran a photo of the interior in its report. The religious society that uses the morada doesn't "under any circumstances permit pictures of the interior to be shown to the public," he notes. (The photo in question has since been removed from the report.)

Maria Valdez sent Westword her own pithy letter in response to my previous post on the Salazar plan. Here it is:

"The political whirlwind tour hosted by Ken Salazar to promote National Park Landmark Designations in the San Luis Valley was political grandstanding. Though the process undertaken by the National Park Service (NPS) is promoted as democratic, participation in Costilla County lacked transparency. NPS, History Colorado,and Colorado Preservation need to slow down and put their plan before the voters before moving forward.

"Foremost, the newly unveiled Park Service Report is promoting conservation easements for La Sierra (Culebra Massif). This might be a problem to the multi-generation residents who have confirmed use rights to graze and gather wood on La Sierra. Secondly, this is a political top-down approach which uses historic La Vega (communal pasture) to incorporate private holdings of well-endowed residents within landmark designation, making them eligible for preservation funds. NPS and the local group are planing to erect interpretative signage for walking tours through La Vega without notification of heirs.

"Equally egregious, all of the hermanos affiliated with the Penitentes at San Francisco have not been informed that tourists will visit their morada (meeting house). An interior photo and historical misinformation appeared in the Report and on the NPS website, despite the lack of permission.

"Finally, we object to the NPS calling us 'American Latinos.' This is not what we call ourselves, it is what Washington calls us. Someone better ask if we want to have Congressional-approved study driven by a flawed process where consent is contrived. Colorado bureaucrats must think that it is all right to make a community into a Latino-American Disneyland without permission."

No word yet on whether the movers behind the NPS report are educating themselves further about local landmarks and customs -- or booking a fact-finding trip to Anaheim.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Ken Salazar hawking solar 'sweet spots' for an energy boost."

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