A "bizarre" alliance fights logging

  • A protestor is hauled away from the Taylor Ranch

    Meghan O'Neal Rudd

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."

Since 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 logging.

"Farmers are feeding Earth First!ers," said Devon Pena, executive director of La Sierra Foundation, based in San Luis. "It's so bizarre. It's wonderful."

This alliance between locals and outsiders is also tenuous.

"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.

La Sierra 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 it.

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 logging.

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 Cristos."

"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 gun.

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 them."

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 July.

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.

San 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 it?"

"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 719/672-3580.

* Jared Farmer, HCN intern

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