Chaos comes to Costilla County

  • Costilla County subdivisions

    Diane Sylvain
  • A logging truck barrels past San Francisco Church, east of San Luis

    Peter McBride
  • A trailer stands out in one of the county's many platted developments

    Peter McBride

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

"They'll be 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 these trucks.

"The community 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.

While the 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.

Their 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 erosion.

"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."

Like the 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 Colorado.

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 logging.

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."

The 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 water.

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 be over.

"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."

Montoya notes 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 War

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 remember.

"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.

Community 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.

The result 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 snow.

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.

Charlie 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 Court.

Will there be a buyout?

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 property.

"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."

The 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 Rescue.

Meanwhile, a developer's paradise

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 plan.

At one hearing this January, 160 people crowded the room and new voices emerged to blast the very concept of planning.

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 ago.

"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.

Costilla 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.

No 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 debts."

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.

For 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 fire.

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 Martin 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 enforced.

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."

Meanwhile, 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.

"So, 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 report.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- 'I saved Jack Taylor's life'

- The last undiscovered place in Colorado

For information about logging on the Taylor Ranch, contact the San Luis Ancient Forest Rescue office at 719/672-3012.


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