The southern Colorado town of San Luis, population 850, is predominantly rural, Hispanic and Catholic. Everyone here knows everyone else. But at a special sunrise service on June 10, the local priest welcomed some new faces from environmental groups such as Ancient Forest Rescue, Greenpeace and Earth First!
Afterwards, the motley congregation drove
to the gate of the Taylor Ranch in the nearby Sangre de Cristo
Mountains to deliver a list of demands. Number one: "The logging
operations (must) immediately cease."
then, the environmentalists have blocked the main ranch road about
every two weeks. On weekends, the handful of permanent activists
may be joined by up to 30 more young people from around the region.
Yet of all the logging protests happening in the West this summer,
Taylor Ranch is an anomaly. The forest that people want to protect
is privately owned, and the local community opposes the
"Farmers are feeding Earth First!ers,"
said Devon Peûa, executive director of La Sierra Foundation,
based in San Luis. "It's so bizarre. It's wonderful."
This alliance between locals and outsiders is
"We knew about the (logging)
issue," said Mike McGowan, a University of Colorado student, "but
we didn't feel comfortable getting involved until at least some of
the people welcomed us there." They got the go-ahead this spring
from Peûa, a sociology professor who only recently moved to
San Luis. Some townsfolk frown upon Peûa's affinity for
publicity and environmentalists.
Foundation is one of two local groups dedicated to reclaiming some
control of the Taylor Ranch, which locals call La Sierra. When
North Carolina lumberman Jack Taylor bought the 77,000-acre
mountain tract in 1960, he barred locals from using the land as a
commons for grazing, wood-gathering and hunting, as they had for
generations (HCN, 10/18/93).
In 1981, the San
Luis-based Land Rights Council sued the ranch for access to the
mountain. The class-action case may finally be heard next year,
provided a countersuit by the ranch doesn't succeed first. La
Sierra Foundation favors a more permanent, and more costly,
solution: The ranch is for sale and they want to buy
Adding urgency to both causes is the threat
from logging. After an 11-year hiatus, the Taylor Ranch began
selling timber contracts in 1995. In response, Costilla County has
tried unsuccessfully to enact a land-use ordinance against
It's not clear how much the visiting
activists can help, but they hope at least to be an annoyance. "My
job is to be a pain in the ass," said Heath Hansens, 23, of Crested
Butte, Colo. He set aside his summer because he believes the ranch
is clearcutting "one of the most wild places left in the Sangre de
"I don't like clearcutting either,"
says Zachary Taylor, trustee for the ranch; he maintains the timber
company is "thinning" about 50 percent of the forest on 6,000 to
9,000 acres. "Our monitoring of the watershed shows no
degradation," he says. "We'd be crazy to mess up our own land. (La
Sierra Foundation's) purpose is to make us look bad so our (other)
buyers will go away."
Complicating the real
estate negotiations is the potential for violence. On June 28, a
logging-truck driver attempted to break a human blockade with his
vehicle. Denise Luttrell, a Greenpeace member from Boulder, Colo.,
remembers "seeing the truck tire heading straight for me. I'm not
sure if I rolled over or people pulled me out." When activists
jumped on the truck, the driver pulled a
That same day, police arrested 20 picketers,
four of them from Costilla County. Among the many bystanders were
Aubin Maestas, 14, a seventh-generation native, and his
grandmother. But ranch manager Vic White believes the activists are
losing their local support: "Every time they come there's less of
Visiting protesters have made a point to
meet with residents, and some participated in the feast days of
Santa Ana and Santiago, the patron saints of San Luis, in late
For the town parade, the protesters dressed
as trees and a chainsaw-wielding Zachary Taylor. A couple of
hecklers ridiculed the skit (-And now the white man will save the
mountain..." ), but overall "it was very well received by the
public," said resident Maclovio Martinez.
Luis residents have given the activists "tremendous friendship" and
even thank-yous, says Mike McGowan. Several farmers offered their
land for the protesters' base camp, and treatment from the police
has been encouraging, he says.
Why do the
generally conservative people of Costilla County tolerate the
outsiders? "The common ground is the desire to stop logging," says
McGowan. He admits, however, that he has lots to learn in San Luis:
"We're just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg on the issue."
Maria Mondragon-Valdez, an outspoken local who
supports the Land Rights Council, isn't surprised. "It's so damn
complex! How could you come here, spend a few weeks and understand
"One of my biggest missions is to listen
and learn," said activist Kirsten Atkins, 30, of Crested Butte.
When she went to Mondragon-Valdez to get acquainted, she got an
earful: "You can't use the same approach in San Luis as you can in
Oregon or Washington State. You need to do this case by case, get
consent and local support."
"(The activists) may
be doing some good," says San Luis resident Gloria Maestas. "But if
any bad reflection falls back, it's on the community. It's easy for
them to walk out of here. But we have to stay."
For more information, contact La Sierra
Foundation at 719/672-3355; the Land Rights Council at
719/672-0827; or the Taylor Ranch at
* Jared Farmer,