Mountain outposts of empire

  Although the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are almost synonymous with New Mexico, the range - the longest in the United States - extends about 110 miles into Colorado. Tom Wolf, a writer and one-time forestry student, explores these northern Sangres in Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Mountains.


Starting with the Anasazi and continuing through the Spanish, Mexicans and Americans, the mountains have been a remote outpost of empire, operated to serve imperial needs. Wolf details this relentlessly: overgrazing by early settlers, clear-cutting in the mining days, too many sheep when America needed wool during World War I, re-education camps to Americanize the immigrants of the Huerfano coal camps, lest they become socialists.


The intrusion continued with the designation of the spine of the Sangres as wilderness in 1993; wilderness designation, Wolf argues, is an attempt to preserve, like a fly in amber, a mountain range that continues to change even geologically, for the Sangres are still rising. Meanwhile, the richest and most diverse lands are those big domains in private hands, such as the Baca grant and the Forbes Trinchera Ranch, a fact which leads Wolf to propose a management system based on a conservation trust, rather than federal management.


There is much to argue with in his proposals, and the book isn't always easy reading. Wolf is often so technical about the trees that the reader has trouble envisioning the forest. But almost always he comes to the reader's rescue with a great phrase like "wind strong enough to blow Christ off the cross."


Colorado's Sangre de Cristo Mountains is solidly researched and provocative. It should serve as the base for some lively discussions and perhaps even action toward new management methods. These days the landscape may suffer more from wilderness lovers than it did from shepherds and lumberjacks.


University Press of Colorado, P.O. Box 849, Niwot, CO 80544 (800/268-6044). Hardcover, $39.95. 340 pages. Illustrated with photos by Barbara Sparks, maps by Myrna Schrader.


*Ed Quillen