150-Year-Old Land Dispute Intensifies in Colorado

Community claims logging on private property hurts water supplies for entire alpine valley

The logging truck comes rumbling down the dusty road, past the adobe homes and ranchitos, toward the small town of San Luis. "Here it comes!" shouts Maria Mondragon Valdez - a sixth-generation resident of this remote community - as she runs urgently to the road's edge, her five-year-old daughter Maya in tow. Standing hand-in-hand, the pair stares icily as the heavily laden truck thunders past.

It's not that Mrs. Valdez expects her presence to stop the procession of logging trucks - as many as 15 a day - that descend from La Sierra, the private mountain that soars to the east. She simply feels a measure of satisfaction, she says, in sending a silent but explicit message to loggers here: Make no mistake, we are watching you.

San Luis, the oldest town in Colorado, is facing one of the West's most pressing problems: what to do when private-property rights conflict with environmental and community concerns.

Accelerated logging activities have raised a longstanding dispute over land-rights to a new level of rancor. Now, concerns that timber-cutting is threatening southern Costilla County's water supply have led the state of Colorado to step in with a possible solution.

Earlier this month, state officials made a $20 million bid for the sprawling 77,000-acre mountain parcel - encompassing 14,000-foot Mt. Culebra - to create a state park and to restore the historic use rights to locals.

"This is important to the local people, and we think it's important to the entire state of Colorado," says Kathy Kanda, spokeswoman for the State Department of Natural Resources, which issued the offer. Currently, there are no state parks in the San Luis Valley - a vast alpine desert that stretches between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains.

Tom Macy, regional director of The Conservation Fund, sees the plan as the best hope for resolving the decades-long conflict over land use on the mountain.

"This is America, and you can do what you want on private property. But if the community that lives downstream from the watershed is affected, then maybe you can't. We're trying to work out a compromise that satisfies everyone," says Mr. Macy, who is helping the state negotiate the purchase.

Zachary Taylor of New Bern, N.C., who owns the mountain tract, is cautiously optimistic about the proposed deal. "We're perfectly willing to sell it to the state under fair terms. But we want an orderly process, not just something that's used to harass us."

For 150 years, descendants of Spanish settlers in San Luis have claimed communal rights to graze livestock, hunt and fish, and gather firewood on La Sierra. These uses were necessary to maintain their subsistence agrarian lifestyle and were guaranteed by the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant in 1844. The US government then confirmed these rights in a 1848 treaty.

But for more than 35 years, San Luis residents have fought an unresolved battle in US courts to gain legal title to these rights. And since 1960 - when North Carolina lumberman Jack Taylor purchased the land for $7 an acre, fenced it, and renamed it Taylor Ranch - community members have been barred from the mountain.

In a series of court fights, the Taylor family has resolutely maintained that locals have no claim to the land. In 1994, residents won a appeal for a retrial - set for 1998.

Meanwhile, a coalition of environmentalists is rallying support for the subsistence farmers of San Luis like the Valdez family. They charge that timbering is cutting the water supply to the valley. Locals do hold legal rights to La Sierra watershed, and the mountain tributaries are the sole water source for the community - other than 10 inches annual precipitation - as well as the oldest recorded water rights in Colorado.

"This is the largest logging operation in the state," contends Jeff Berman, of Ancient Forest Rescue, and has effectively altered the natural cycle of the local watershed. "Now snowmelt comes running down in May instead of being spread throughout the growing season. By August, there is no water left to irrigate crops," he says. Moreover, "sedimentation from the timbering is clogging streams and irrigation ditches."

But Zachary Taylor, son of the late Jack Taylor and executor of the Taylor estate, challenges these claims, and counters that timbering in fact protects and improves the local watershed. "It's improving the watershed because it's eliminating a great hazard of wildfire. The number one danger to the watershed is fire," he says.

Maclovio Martinez, president of the Costilla County Conservancy District, disagrees. "Already, we have lost probably 50 percent of our ability to irrigate. We can see the writing on the wall if the logging continues," he says. "What do we have left if we don't have water? This has got to stop."

But even a state buyout might not stop logging on the mountain. Three logging companies currently hold contracts on the property through 2006. "I can't stop that even if I wanted to," says Mr. Taylor. "Those contracts are sold."

To date, timber-cutting has totaled some 20 million board feet, and Taylor estimates another 70 million board will be logged under current contracts. State officials say it's unclear whether the existing logging will sour their interest. "Until we're on the property, it's difficult to say," says Ms. Kanda.

It remains one of the greatest fears of locals. But in a political climate where private property is a hot-button issue, even Maria Valdez acknowledges that Taylor stands on firm legal ground. "We're saying, 'Look, you may have private property rights, but your rights interfere with the common good of a larger community.' "

Ironically, legal expenses from the ongoing dispute over historic right-to-use claims "forced us to go to timbering," says Taylor.

Perhaps the greatest irony in this emotionally charged battle is that Taylor's ancestor and namesake - 12th US President Zachary Taylor - was the general who led the Mexican-American War and signed the 1848 treaty.

"It is ironic," says Taylor. "These people must be wondering what it will take to get rid of me."

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