Let's not heap injustice upon injustice

 

SAN LUIS, Colo. - The ownership of the Taylor Ranch in Colorado's San Luis Valley has been a bone of contention for the past 34 years. However, the story of the land has a longer history and the feelings about it run deeper because the Taylor Ranch is not just another piece of mountain real estate empty of people and tradition. It is "La Sierra," the centerpiece of cultural and economic survival for descendants of the first settlers.

This community is Colorado's first permanent bi-cultural (Indian/Mexican) agrarian infrastructure. Our ancestors were given small parcels of land (in a Mexican land grant in 1849) to establish villages and a communal pasture for their animals. They were also given legal access to La Sierra, where they gathered wood, grazed animals, fished and hunted. Access rights to the private La Sierra mountain tract were a necessity to the survival of the settlement.

The community maintained these simple land-tenure traditions for over 100 years. But in 1960, our historic covenant was breached by Jack Taylor, a North Carolina lumber man, who purchased and fenced La Sierra (HCN, 10/18/93). The 121-square-mile mountain estate, which Taylor bought for $7/acre, was a bargain because the title was "subject to the rights of the local people." Taylor moved to erase the community's history and communal bonds with the landscape by tactics which undermined our constitutional protection as land-grant heirs. As the barbed wire fences went up, the Taylor Ranch established a commercial timber operation to log the southern end of the tract to the point of clearcutting, and some of the land was subdivided. Today, the Taylor Ranch has become a private game resort for hunters.

Despite 40 lost years, we have refused to give up our traditional rights, and after a 13-year struggle our case is before the Colorado Supreme Court. Taylor died in 1986. Now his heirs are attempting to sell the ranch for between 42 and 66 times the purchase price. A tidy profit for owners who have been able to manipulate the county assessment system so as to keep property taxes unconscionably low. They paid a mere $22,000 in 1993 for a 77,000-acre mountain range.

Who the new owners will be, and how they will treat the community is a major concern. Currently the most visible contender for ownership is the state of Colorado. However, the state wants us to share costs of its purchase by fund-raising a "contribution" to purchase an easement. The proposed easement would reinstate traditional use rights and prohibit logging and mining.

Among several large issues underlying this particular debate is the land tenure system in the West. In Colorado, 5 percent of the population owns 80 percent of the private land. In Costilla County, we have 40,000 absentee owners. This problem is symptomatic of a system where land is an expendable commodity. When resources and land are not tied to survival and have no historical bond, they are easily exploited and traded in a market that places little value on the rights of those who depend on the surrounding habitat for existence.

We must now question whether it is ethical for one owner, corporation, or state entity to dominate and exploit resources at the expense of a community which considers the landscape part of its traditional homeland. Will the state as landlord (under direction of powerful special interests) dictate land and resource use to the detriment of a vulnerable community?

The second set of questions deals with legal morality. Do the prior historical rights of my community, which are protected under an international treaty with Mexico and confirmed by Congress, merit reconsideration? Is it right for a class of people, who are low-income and have a tradition of living off the land, to be required by Colorado to repurchase their rights when the violation of these very rights is being contested in the Colorado Supreme Court?

A third question revolves around land-use ethics. Does any owner have the right to destroy the ecological niche of an entire community? Should my community be required to protect state property from state exploitation if the state becomes the owner?

In the final analysis, the best way to resolve this problem is for the Taylor Estate to reattach the usufructuary clause to the deed and quit in perpetuity any mineral or commercial timber rights. The state or federal governments should set aside the tract in a communal trust in the same manner that indigenous communities have had their land protected.

If Colorado wants to celebrate diversity and conserve my community, it would be in its and our best interest to forget plans to construct a park or public game reserve to be despoiled by amenity tourism. Until Colorado reconciles its history of human and legal rights violations and land tenure problems, the bone of contention will remain.

Maria Mondragon-Valdez is a member of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant Commission and a resident of San Luis, Colo. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in American studies at the University of New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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