Can San Luis resist 'regional chaos'?

 

It was a Colorado state helicopter that turned Maria Mondragon-Valdez around on the subject of the 77,000-acre Taylor Ranch.

Originally, she supported a proposal for a split purchase of the mountain tract she and other San Luis Valley residents call La Sierra, and which they believe was stolen from their community in 1960. The proposal called for the state of Colorado, using lottery money, to purchase the land. At the same time, her community would buy an easement restoring to it traditional wood-cutting, grazing and hunting rights.

She thought it was unfair to buy back what was stolen. But as a member of Colorado Gov. Roy Romer's advisory commission on the ranch, she also thought it the best deal available.

But in January, she says, back in her tiny town of San Luis, where her family has lived since the mid- 19th century, she saw implications that hadn't been visible in the "confines of the negotiating room."

Ken Salazar - head of Colorado's Department of Natural Resources and also a native of the San Luis Valley - -brought an entourage from the Division of Wildlife, State Parks, the media and so on. They made trip after trip to the mountain in a helicopter. And they looked at the community like it was under glass."

The invasion, she says, revealed the "deeper implications of the solutions they're offering us. It began to look like amenity development - a Taos, or Santa Fe."

Her part of the San Luis Valley would be forcibly inducted into what she sees as "regional chaos, with small ranchers and agriculture being edged out by developers.

"Rural areas near the Front Range were hit first by amenity development. Now more isolated areas are being hit, like Costilla County," she says.

To justify the state's expenditure of money on the Taylor Ranch, Mondragon-Valdez says, Colorado would develop the ranch for Winnebagos, trophy hunting and off-road vehicles.

"The local community depends on elk for the table, not for the wall. But the state wants commercialization of wildlife."

Mondragon-Valdez says the local community wants to cut trees for fence posts, vigas and firewood. "But suddenly the state is talking about using beetle-killed trees for paneling. We see move after move to commercialize the ranch."

She also fears that the state is moving too quickly. The Taylor Ranch is damaged land, according to Mondragon-Valdez, subdivided in the north and roaded and clearcut in the south. She says it needs a restoration plan.

And because the community has been severed from the land for almost two generations, residents will need several years, and good planning and education, to learn to live with the land again. The present relationship, she says, is that of jump the fence and grab something. "Relearning the old ways will take time."

Most of all, she says, she fears those who will come to La Sierra seeking "amenities' - trophy elk, ski-doo trails, trailer hookups. She says writer Ed Quillen in the Denver Post came closest to expressing her fears when he described what was coming as "a cultural Disneyland." It will be, she fears, "a theme park with our community at the center."

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