County votes to control private-land logging

 

Alarmed by a rancher's plans to log trees at the top of a watershed, a southern Colorado county is drafting regulations to stop the cut and protect the area's water supply.

Costilla County in the high, cold San Luis Valley now has no control over its watershed because the high mountain tracts - considered a commons for more than a century - are privately owned, says Barbara Green, special counsel to the county and its conservancy district. Green says the county plans to create a watershed district that would require a landowner to obtain a permit to develop lands above 8,000 feet, as well as to mitigate any damage to the environment.

The ranch in question, the 77,000-acre Taylor Ranch, hasn't logged any trees in 11 years. But manager Stet Edmunds says it now has a contract with Stone Forest Industries allowing 12 percent of the ranch to be cut. The yield will be approximately 25 million board feet over four years.

"This will devastate the mountain. It would be the greatest shame if the land was logged and ruined," says Maclovio Martinez, president of the Costilla County Conservancy District.

Hispanic settlers grazed livestock, gathered wood, hunted and fished on the land they call "La Sierra" or "the mountain tract" since before the U.S. Congress ratified a Mexican land grant for the area, in 1860. When Jack Taylor bought the ranch near San Luis in 1960, however, he successfully sued to clear the land's title. Then he cut off public access (HCN, 10/18/93).

Martinez says the authority to establish a watershed district comes from state law. The Local Government Land Use Control Enabling Act, passed in 1974, allows counties broad jurisdiction to develop regulations to protect the environment.

Because the watershed regulations will take time to develop, Costilla County Commissioners plan to adopt an emergency resolution regulating the proposed watershed district. Once in place, the resolution will require the county to complete an environmental study before any logging could begin, says Martinez.

Thus far, Taylor Ranch has been unwilling to show its plan to the county. Maria Valdez, a member of the newly formed advisory land use committee, says ranch manager Edmunds refused to submit a logging plan to her group, although he assured them the harvest would be environmentally sound.

Meanwhile, San Luis residents continue the struggle to win back their rights to use of the land. Since 1981, the local Land Rights Council, a nonprofit group, has been working to challenge the decision that cleared Taylor's title to the mountain tract. Several courts have upheld the community's right to have the case heard, but Taylor Ranch still has one more chance to try to throw it out, says Jeff Goldstein, lawyer for the Land Rights Council. If they finally do regain their common-use rights, Valdez says, the locals would have more leverage to determine how Taylor Ranch manages land.

But most agree that the best long-term solution is community ownership. State and private non-profit groups have tried to purchase the ranch, but so far no one has been able to raise the $30-million asking price.

"I think the only way to settle this is to acquire the land and let the county return the use-rights to the residents in a managed way," says Martinez. "We'll never do away with the trauma of this whole history until we buy the land and it's ours."

For more information call the Costilla County Commissioners at 719/672-3372.

Elizabeth Manning, HCN intern

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