SAN LUIS, Colo. - For now, the mornings are quiet again in this oldest of Colorado towns. The air is clear, and the jagged Sangre de Cristo Mountains seem to leap from the 8,000-foot valley floor. But just a few weeks ago, this isolated small town, which boasts three restaurants, a gas station, church, bar and office for Costilla County, was rattled by 15 or more logging trucks a day
back," says Andrés Montoya, a fifth-generation farmer who
lives east of town. "When the ground is dry in the high country,
the logging trucks will start running at 5 a.m., and you can hear
them miles away. They speed; they are overloaded. When you get
woken up every morning by these trucks, it makes you wonder how
much longer you can take it."
It's not the
noise so much that offends him and other predominantly Hispanic
residents. It's the insult. Many here believe they are the rightful
users of the mountain tract where the ponderosa pine and Douglas
fir once grew; they own it because Mexico lured their forebears
here with the promise of sharing it. While few, if any, of the
3,200 people in the county are getting rich these days working on
small farms, Montoya and other residents will tell you proudly that
no one who lives in the town of San Luis, pop. 900, is driving
has no involvement with this matanza (Spanish for slaughter)," is
the way Maria Mondragon-Valdez, a fifth-generation resident and
mother of five, puts it.
For the first time,
she says, local feuds have been silenced. The common foe is Zachary
Taylor, the owner of the mountain tract which San Luis residents
call "La Sierra." He visits his vast, 121-square mile ranch every
four months or so, but lives 1,900 miles east, in New Bern, N.C.
The contracts he signed guarantee the cutting of trees from his
mountain holdings for several years.
Hispanic people have put aside their feuds and are united against
Taylor and his logging, Costilla County as a whole is no longer of
one mind. Decades of haphazard subdividing, which helped the county
by bringing in property taxes from thousands and thousands of
vacant lots, have finally borne fruit. More and more of those lots
are occupied by militant, anti-government newcomers who oppose
Costilla County's present efforts to control the logging through
the adoption of land-use regulations.
movement into the area is a lucky break for Taylor, a descendant of
the 12th U.S. president, Zachary Taylor. The landowner downplays
the fears that have brought the town of San Luis together. The
subsistence farmers in and around the town believe that without
dense tree cover on steep slopes, snow will melt faster and shorten
the irrigation season in the valley below, while also speeding up
"These statements are
just a bunch of trumped-up charges," Taylor said in a telephone
interview. "Thinning (of the forest) increases snowpack. The
melting of the snow is due to the heating of the earth, not from
the sun." In any case, he adds, there was a drought last year that
decreased the amount of water, and "there are just a few
rabble-rousers stirring up farmers."
drivers of the logging trucks, most of the "rabble-rousers' come
from somewhere else; many are from Boulder, Colo., where the
nonprofit group Ancient Forest Rescue is based. Activists have also
come from the group Greenpeace.
Dozens of their
members have joined San Luis residents in protests, staging six
demonstrations at entrances to the Taylor Ranch to delay logging
trucks. Despite 54 arrests of environmentalists in less than a
year, many have stayed to work with farmers; others have taken
slide shows about San Luis to other towns in
As Mike McGowan, 22, an activist with
Ancient Forest Rescue, explains, it's been a good experience.
"Everywhere else we have
been, we have been hated by the communities," he admits. "It's
different here. We saw a way of life that was more sustainable, and
we listened to the residents instead of telling them what to do."
What united the two groups, he said, was opposition to
Montoya says he's glad the
environmentalists have come. "None here has the huevos to do it -
to chain themselves to a truck," he says. "Someone should give
those kids an award for community service."
protests stem from the farmers' dependence on snowmelt to grow
pinto beans, chilies, corn and alfalfa on 22,000 acres of
bottomland in the high-desert valley, says Devon Peûa, a
sociologist currently living in San Luis. It's a form of
agriculture that goes back seven generations. Hispanic farmers
never built reservoirs to store snowmelt for irrigating crops,
Peûa adds, because each spring there was enough runoff from
the mountain tract, and everyone shared the
But for the last two years, says Joe
Gallegos, a farmer and one of the town's protest leaders, Taylor's
logging has increased the sediment in the century-old acequia ditch
network and shortened the irrigation season. Although Gallegos
tells visitors his farm is the oldest in Colorado, dating back to
1840, he fears the days of adequate water for healthy crops could
"Every time they cut
a tree up there, there's more sun on the snow," Gallegos says. "The
water is going to come down faster. We don't need any scientist to
tell us that."
Since the San Luis Valley
resembles California's Death Valley in the paltry amount of rain it
receives - sometimes as little as four inches a year - Gallegos
says that without steady irrigation, the valley could dry up and
turn into sagebrush.
Another farmer, County
Commissioner Carlos Atencio, agrees. He's seen some farms that used
to grow potatoes, he says, but since potatoes take a lot of water,
"they can't grow them anymore."
that, no matter what, farming has never made anyone rich in San
Luis. County statistics bear him out: One-third of all residents
receive federal food stamps. "But we are rich in quality of life,"
he says, though "Taylor disrupted that quality."
The real Milagro Beanfield
The anger directed at the Taylor family is
nothing new to San Luis, where the sounds of 16th century Castilian
Spanish can be heard in the streets, and where nearby villages
carry the names of Roman Catholic saints: San Francisco, San Pedro,
San Pablo, San Isidro, San Acacio. Here in this most southern of
Colorado counties, the Taylor Ranch has been a point of contention
for as long as anyone can
"This is the real
Milagro Beanfield War," says community activist Peûa,
referring to the John Nichols novel about poor New Mexico farmers
who revolt against Anglo developers. For residents, the mountain
tract is a source not only of water but also of firewood and deer
and elk hunting. The assumption for decades was that the mountains
were a commons, open to everyone.
access changed, however, when Zachary Taylor's father, Jack, bought
the mountain tract in 1960 for $6.40 an acre. The tract had had
four previous private owners - and more than 100 years of
uninterrupted community use (HCN, 10/18/93). Taylor quickly
alienated San Luis locals by fencing the property and barricading
entrances, denying all public access.
was a modern range war. In 1961, Taylor put three locals in the
hospital after pistol-whipping them for trespass. That landed
Taylor in jail, charged with kidnapping, says Joe Espinoza, mayor
of San Luis.
Nine years later, Taylor was shot
in the ankle while sleeping in his house. No one was ever charged
with the attack, and afterward, Taylor refused to return to the
ranch. When Jack Taylor died in 1988, son Zachary inherited the
property and another chapter may have been added to the range war
saga: In 1995, a fire of undetermined origin burned Taylor's ranch
house to the ground.
For the last 17 years, a
grassroots group, the Land Rights Council, has been fighting
Taylor's denial of access to San Luis residents through the courts.
The plaintiffs say they share rights to what's left of Mexico's 1
million-acre land grant, specifically the Taylor Ranch. The suit
says that Mexico, in an attempt to solidify its northern border,
gave the mountain tract to settlers in the mid-19th century. The
settlers were Mexicans living in Taos who were lured to the San
Luis Valley by the promise of land made fertile by melting
Without guaranteed access to the
mountains, the plaintiffs say, no one would have farmed what are
called varas (long lots) in the San Luis Valley. It was the shared
mountain that made life sustainable.
Jaquez, a member of the Land Rights Council and plaintiff in the
lawsuit, says the Taylor Ranch dispute may now focus on water, but
the issue driving it is more profound. "That mountain is in our
blood and our culture," says Jaquez, whose great-great-grandfather
also farmed in the valley. "We will never give up this battle."
The first hearing of the Land Rights Council
case will be held this September in San Luis District
Will there be a
Jack Taylor paid $493,000 for the ranch
in 1960, but his son Zachary wants $20 million in 1997. He first
asked $30 million for the 77,000-acre property, then dropped the
price when potential buyers learned that a lawsuit came with the
"You can't get a
fair break from these people," Taylor said during our phone
conversation. "All they want is to lower the price of our land so
we sell cheaply and they get free access."
most likely buyer is the state of Colorado, which is waiting for an
appraisal to be completed, says Jim Lochhead, director of the
Colorado Department of Natural Resources. Taylor had refused to
allow an appraisal until this spring. Since 1993, when Colorado
Gov. Roy Romer appointed a commission, a broad-based coalition of
San Luis organizations and state agencies has looked for money to
purchase the ranch.
But now that much of its
forests have been thinned, the ranch that includes one of the
state's "fourteeners," 14,047-foot Culebra Peak, may be worth far
less than Taylor is asking. Twenty million board-feet has already
been cut, it is estimated. Another 70 million board-feet is
expected to be taken, making this the largest cut going forward in
Colorado, say activists with Ancient Forest
An attempt to rein in
Taylor's multiple logging contracts began last year, when Costilla
County commissioners and the San Luis Water Conservancy District
set up a commission to develop a land-use plan. But where San Luis
residents found unity in opposing the Taylor timber operation, they
encountered unexpected opposition in developing a county-wide
At one hearing this January, 160 people
crowded the room and new voices emerged to blast the very concept
Some of the speakers were
second-home owners or recent arrivals to northern Costilla County,
where predominantly Anglo people have bought land. One planning
opponent was Steve Woelfel, who clears sagebrush from home sites
and who moved in five years
"We don't need planning
in this county," he insists. "People want to live here to be free.
They don't want to be messed with." He calls San Luis people
"clannish" and county government based in San Luis "corrupt."
Devon Peûa says, "There are definitely
anti-government people here. They think it is still the wild West."
Charlie Jaquez characterizes the anti-planning people who spoke out
at the meetings this way: "They have a Montana Freemen mentality in
the north of the county." Jaquez also adds, "We have been
victimized by our own failure to act with land-use regulations."
The "don't tell a man what to do with his land"
philosophy that has underlain Costilla County's attitude toward
planning has created what might be called a tradition of anarchy.
Arnie Valdez, who served as planning commission chairman for almost
a year, says that for decades - and more or less routinely -
commissioners allowed developers to plat huge developments and then
chop lots into smaller pieces.
From the air you
can see the result: vast checkerboard patterns of home sites
divvied up by dirt roads. Malcolm Forbes was an early developer
here, platting his 277,000-acre Trinchera Ranch in the north of the
county in the late "60s.
To the south, Evan
Melby is now developing 25,000 acres for hunting retreats and
second homes. Melby advertises "heaven on earth" with "schools and
shopping nearby" in airline magazines.
County now boasts 21 platted developments containing over 40,000
lots and at least 3,500 miles of roads. The available lots spread
over an astounding 500 square miles, and if all were occupied by
families of five, Costilla County, now home to about 3,800 people,
would boom to a population of over 200,000.
other rural county in the state boasts so many lots for sale or so
many absentee landowners. Maclovio Martinez, assessor for Costilla
County, says that most of the landowners in his county claim their
primary residence somewhere else in the world.
Of course, no one ever believed people would make these properties
home, since almost none include any delivery of water, sewer or
electricity, and few are close to services such as a hospital,
police station or schools. Forbes' ads in magazines like The New
Yorker indirectly acknowledged this lack of what developers call
infrastructure by ballyhooing purchase of land in Costilla County
as buying a piece of wild and spectacular Colorado.
The pattern established could be called
land-churning: A buyer seeking a second home, or perhaps the dream
of a new home after retirement, purchased a lot, grew tired of
paying taxes on land that was never visited or built on, and
abandoned the lot to the county for nonpayment of taxes. Developers
could then buy back delinquent properties three years later for
back-tax prices and resell the land to the next willing customer
for a healthy profit.
In Costilla County, this
has happened many times. The Washington Post in 1979 told of a
settlement approved by the Federal Trade Commission under which
"thousands of consumers who bought allegedly worthless land in
Colorado will get up to $14 million in refunds and cancelled
The 7,600 buyers in six Colorado
developments - most in Costilla County - got 70 percent of their
principal and interest back from San Luis Valley Ranches, Rio
Grande Ranches and Top of the World. According to the Post's Sept.
22, 1979, account, the FTC investigation found that developers
falsely claimed the lots were of comparable value to mountain
resorts or recreation areas and were suitable for homesites.
"The lots are of little or no
value to purchasers as investments or homesites," the federal
agency concluded almost 20 years ago.
Costilla County, Colorado's poorest, the land-churning hasn't been
all bad, since few landowners ever showed up either to demand
services or denounce a move toward the regulation of private
property. Assessor Martinez says last year 60 percent, or $2.3
million, of all Costilla County revenue came from taxes on
undeveloped lots. But that money is quickly eaten up by the
county's growing schools and road maintenance, he adds, leaving the
county underfunded for other necessary services, such as police and
What's new these days is that lot buyers
have begun moving in trailers to become residents on more than
paper. Some want upgraded services, and dozens, estimates Arnie
Valdez, have become anti-planning activists.
Californian Ken Hersey says that if regulations on his 160 acres
were imposed, "they can expect a federal lawsuit from me and
several others. This is a regulatory takings."
Developer Melby laughed when asked what he thought about land-use
planning. "I think (it's) great, the county needs planning, but it
won't affect me, all my lots are already platted."
Like many Costilla County developments, Melby's
lots were platted before Senate Bill 35 passed in 1972, which gives
Colorado counties the power to regulate developments under 35
acres. But County Commissioner Atencio says that even after the law
was enacted, his predecessors maintained a relaxed stance toward
development and today "the county is paying the dues."
Valdez also blames the commissioners for their
passivity in the face of developers and says the recent commission
should have been more comprehensive. But no one has enforced the
few regulations that are on the books, he says, and without a new
effort "we will continue to be a reactionary community like we have
in the past. Melby will continue developing like he has and Taylor
will keep logging the hell out of the mountain."
On May 9, almost a year from its inception,
Valdez's commission was dissolved and attorney MartÆn
Gonzalez, from Conejos County, has been given the task of
developing a land-use plan. Gonzalez says he will look at
everything from protecting the watershed to subdivision
regulations, and he intends to have a plan ready for public review
this July. If the commissioners approve a plan, the Water
Conservancy District has said it will pay $30,000 in salaries to
ensure the new regulations are administered and
But Gonzalez warns that a land-use
plan will not create instant changes. "It will only serve as a
framework for a decision process, so the commissioners can make
decisions in an orderly manner."
some of the county's newer residents, the lot owners who few
thought would ever show up, seem determined to block any move
driven by San Luis residents to regulate private property. As Chuck
(-no last name, please') puts it, "I came out here (from northern
California) to get away from things. I bought this plot here four
years ago, sight unseen. Cost me $2,200. It is five acres, a
five-acre horse ranch. Well, that is at least what the
advertisement called it.
if they try to start telling me what I can and can't do here, hell,
they just can't do it. I won't let them."
Peter McBride freelances from Old Snowmass,
Colorado. Editor Betsy Marston contributed to this
For information about logging on the
Taylor Ranch, contact the San Luis Ancient Forest Rescue office at