Interior: Region's Hispanic heritage worth honoring, preserving
By MATT HILDNER | email@example.com The Pueblo Chieftain
ALAMOSA — When Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar comes to Adams State College on Jan. 4, he'll come armed with a report he hopes can convince Congress and the National Park Service that Southern Colorado's Hispanic heritage is worthy of their attention.
The 56-page survey argues that the settlement of a 5,100 square-mile area, once part of the Mexican frontier, made up a significant chapter in American history that has left a legacy found today in the region's, language, art, religion and agriculture.
The area includes parts of Alamosa, Conejos, Costilla and Saguache counties, reaches across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to take in parts of Huerfano and Las Animas counties and extends south into two northern New Mexico counties.
It would be up to the Park Service, with direction from Congress, to determine whether it would be feasible or suitable to bring the area into the park system and whether it required direct management from the agency.
But the report looks at the history of the region, noting the impact of the five large land grants that were issued by the Mexican government to lure settlers to the area and fortify Mexico from Texan encroachment and threats from Native Americans.
While the Sangre de Cristo land grant remains very much in today's headlines as heirs continue the legal process to gain access to a portion of it east of San Luis, the report highlights the settlement patterns that sprung from all of them.
Often settled around a plaza, the communities included irrigation ditches, known as acequias, that watered long narrow lots.
San Luis, founded in 1851, would become the state's oldest town, while the People's Ditch that runs across the town's southern end to neighboring farms would mark the state's first water right.
The settlements also included common grazing areas and communal rights for settlers to gather firewood and take game.
And at the center of each plaza was often a church.
Salazar's study area includes the state's oldest parish — Our Lady of Guadalupe just north of Antonito and the oldest church in the San Acacio Mission just west of San Luis.
Moreover, the religious laymen's fraternities that sprung up across the region and were home to the Penitente Brotherhood, are still active in some places.
The report notes that if Congress were to authorize further study it could look to the management example found in the Blackstone River National Heritage Corridor, which honors the birth of the industrial revolution in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
It might also look simply at the creation of a commemorative center in the area that could host a museum, research center or cultural events.
But there are also other recommendations in the survey that don't involve the Park Service.
The report encourages the use of conservation easements in the region, particularly in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where three large ranches dominate the landscape.
The largely undeveloped terrain that make up the Trinchera and Cielo Vista ranches in Colorado and the Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico, could provide an important wildlife corridor, linking eastern prairies and the high mountain valleys.
Research May Revive Park Proposal
By Albuquerque Journal Editorial Board on Sun, Dec 25, 2011
A new National Park Service study may revive efforts, abandoned 30-odd years ago, to turn the Vermejo Park Ranch into a national park. In addition, the study could give new impetus to efforts to preserve historical Hispanic settlements and other sites in both northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, as well as link Vermejo Park and several other very large ranches north of there into a wildlife migration corridor.
In all this, it must certainly have helped that the current Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, is native to the area in question. But the fact that the big man — and the guy who initiated the study — is a homeboy doesn’t mean that parks and historical and habitat preservation across the San Luis Valley in Colorado and along the spine of the Sangre de Cristo range in northern New Mexico aren’t good ideas in their own right.
For northern New Mexicans, the study makes amusing reading. That’s mainly because Hispanic settlements on the Colorado side of the border, including the acequia systems, homesteads and historic churches that the study identifies as important evidence in the tale of what it calls “Latino settlement,” are so much younger than the same on this side the state line, farther south.
Colorado’s oldest church and its first recorded water right, plus its land-grant ranches — all hard by that border — date back only a couple of hundred years. Here, of course, when we talk about the first European settlements, we’re talking in terms of four centuries. But, as the study rightly notes, the whole area is culturally, geographically and demographically of a piece, representing “the northernmost expansion of the Spanish Colonial and Mexican frontier,” with a “distinctive and exceptional concentration of historic resources associated with Hispano settlement.”
A national historical park might be in order, the study notes. At the very least, the National Park Service could help the two states involved develop “heritage tour routes” that would include historical information and identify landmark sites.
Noting that conservation easements already exist on some of the big ranches that were once Mexican land grants in the area, the study recommends that these be expanded so that wildlife migration could be better protected. “There are few other places in the southwestern United States,” the study says, “where such an open and unchanged landscape exists.”
The study also recommends revisiting the previous Vermejo Park ranch study that was completed in 1979 and concluded that the ranch merited inclusion in the National Park System.
All of this will require more than just Salazar, however. Only Congress can authorize the more in-depth reviews needed to look at just what, and how much, might be required to designate sites as parks or landmarks.
Salazar will be back home in the San Luis Valley with two Colorado senators and the state’s governor to talk about it after the first of the year.
Maybe New Mexico’s congressional delegation can find a way to generate enthusiasm for these ideas on this side of the state line, too.