Action on Endangered San Luis Watershed

by Pam Sherman, Peak & Prairie Staff

They roast corn in outdoor ovens and practice subsistence farming. They have hunted and cut firewood for seven generations on common land granted by the Mexican government, known as La Sierra. These are the people of the San Luis Valley. The ancestral common land, however, is part of a holding now called Taylor Ranch. When Zachary Taylor bought the property in 1960 he cut off access to the land. This denied residents of the area the historic rights to cut wood, hunt and graze on the land. Taylor went to federal court, without notifying all the local landowners, to "quiet title," that is, to get complete rights to the land for himself and eliminate the historic rights of the residents of the valley to continue using this common land, which is in the Culebra Watershed.

The problem is, they need to hunt and gather firewood simply to survive there. But Taylor has recently been heavily logging this land, selling to U.S. Forest Products (formerly Stone Container), Rio Grande Forest Products and Southwest Mountain Resources. Some activists estimate this could be the largest logging operation in the country.

The logging has removed much of the canopy, which exposes the snowpack to more sun. So the people in the valley are getting a huge rush of water in the spring, more than they need and can possibly use--they are not permitted to store it--and none in the summer when they need it to grow crops. The irrigation ditches are filling with sediment; the forest soil is washing away and a unique biological corridor is being lost.

Colorado is one of only five states without logging regulations for private land. So this summer the people of the valley joined with Ancient Forest Rescue and other environmental groups in what they believe is the first coalition in the history of Colorado of predominantly Anglo environmentalists and grassroots Chicanos.

The group blockaded the Taylor Ranch for 33 days by locking themselves to several gates. According to Ancient Forest Rescue activist Megan Corrigan, "eighty-year-old local ladies and families brought us food, old men brought us firewood, teens were also active in the support system." The protesters who "locked down" included the first local woman to do this, a respected mother of three, a fifteen-year-old young man, and anonymous people who simply put themselves on the line.

At one point, two female sheriff's department employees, called "certified pressure point experts," applied sophisticated pain-generating grips and holds for almost half an hour on a locked-down protester, while a dozen other protesters chanted, "The whole world is watching."

In a recorded interview with Pacifica Radio and Latino USA, local Undersheriff Roger Benton stated that the Costilla County Sheriff ordered his personnel to engage in what observers at the scene described as "torture."

Local backhoe operators refused to help the Costilla County Sheriff's Department when asked to excavate one of the gates at which protesters were locked down.

The lockdown ended when a new road was built skirting the lockdown sites. Local activists continue with direct action protests in an attempt to slow the logging down, while court cases against the logging continue. Efforts by the state to buy the Taylor Ranch stalled more than a year ago, although a commission appointed by the governor continues to try to find a way to purchase it,

Meanwhile, a trial was scheduled to start in San Luis in late September in a class action by local land owners who were not part of Taylor's federal court case in 1960. In 1994 the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in this continuing saga that persons who could show that they should have been made parties could sue to uphold their rights to use the property for historic purposes (grazing, gathering wood, hunting and timbering), according to Jerry Gordon, a Boulder lawyer representing some of the plaintiffs. This is the first of two stages in the land owners' case. It will determine whether Taylor failed to name people he should included in the federal case; if so, they will be allowed to go to trial next year to prove their historic rights. At the last minute, Taylor went back to federal court to try to stop the state case, but that effort failed.

Like the desultory state negotiations to buy the land, the legal effort is not likely to change the situation soon. Action in the field by activists and local folks will continue to be necessary.

What You Can Do: Write to Governor Romer. Join the people of the San Luis Valley at planned times during the fall and coming winter as they grapple with this issue. Call Ancient Forest Rescue for details on actions, (719) 672-3012.