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Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, by Tom Wolf

Review by Ed Quillen

Mountains – January 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains
by Tom Wolf
Photographs by Barbara Sparks
Cartography by Myrna Schrader
Published in 1995 by University Press of Colorado
ISBN 0-87081-370-6

From my front porch, I can see the start of the longest mountain range in the West — Methodist Mountain, the first of the Sangre de Cristos which extend 250 miles from Salida to Santa Fé. This juxtaposed nomenclature — a Protestant peak in a Catholic range — may be the least of the paradoxes and enigmas associated with the Sangres.

As Tom Wolf points out frequently in his book about the 110 Sangre miles in Colorado, everything you assume about the Sangres is probably wrong.

For instance, it’s a given in Colorado that the west side of a range will be wetter than the east side. But the Sangres lie in the rain shadow of the San Juans for Pacific moisture, and so their east side gets more precipitation.

Environmentalists often equate public ownership with protection of watersheds, habitat, and wildlife. But the richest diversity and healthiest populations in the Sangres are on big chunks of private land like the Forbes Trinchera estate.

Ranchers generally oppose the re-introduction of wolves since the canines might eat their calves. But meanwhile, the Sangre elk herds are growing faster than hunters can reduce them, which means less forage for cattle and a consequent reduction in range capacity. Stockmen might be better off if there were wolves for year-round pruning of the elk herds.

Further, only 35% of the allotted grazing in the Sangres remains in use, and beef’s contribution to the region’s economy is much smaller than recreation’s, although recreation fees contribute very little to the Forest Service budget.

Recreation creates its own set of demands on the range, though: trash, trampling, erosion, pollution. With formal wilderness designation in 1993, back-country use is expected to increase, while the ability of the Forest Service to accommodate crowds is diminished — i.e., a heavily-used trail in a regular forest might even be paved, but that can’t be done in a wilderness.

Those are just a few of the paradoxes of the Sangres that Wolf explores in thorough detail, stretching back through time to the shallow seas before Laramide Orogeny and bringing the tale to current issues of wilderness use and abuse.

He doesn’t organize the book as a historical narrative, nor by geography. Instead, the book approaches the mountains from varied vantages: the 19th-century Hispanic farmers at Cotton Creek who became chattels of Colorado Fuel & Iron when the corporation acquired their water to run its Orient iron mine; the forest ranger Arthur Carhart, who essentially invented the idea of recreation in national forests; game warden Dan Riggs, who in 1947 started to work in his native Wet Mountain Valley and found that poaching had eliminated elk from the Sangres.

Riggs cracked down, to the considerable displeasure of locals. At the end of his career, he recalled that “If I’d been shot at as many times as I’ve been threatened, I wouldn’t be able to take a drink of water. It would run out from all over me.”

Often, the vantage is that of a forester explaining why trees grow where they do — or trying, since lodgepole and piñon don’t belong where they appear in the Sangres. Sometimes these rather technical sections seem too detailed, but Wolf often rescues the reader with memorable and pithy phrases:

“lodgepole farther north in Colorado will dominate sites so marginal that only limber pine would be caught there alive.” “more kinds of willow than most people care to count.” “Perhaps to ensure continual renewal, aspen harbors a little universe of parasites, such as the 250 kinds of fungi that call it home.” “Forest Supervisors now had to document the board feet of timber, sums of souls, tons of fun, cubic yards of soil”

“Special interest groups know that they can get more of what they want in court than they can by participating in good faith in planning.” “The elk shelter downvalley because they have learned the hardest of the hard facts of life in the Sangres — wind strong enough to blow Christ off the cross.”

One consistent thread is that the Sangres have always been a remote outpost of empire (perhaps even in Anasazi days), and thus were always managed to serve the aims of empire.

The Spanish, and after 1822, the Mexicans, saw the Sangres as a buffer and barrier to discourage Yankee and French intrusion into their domain, and to that end, forged alliances with the Utes and then issued land grants — the reason so much of the Sangres are in private hands — to encourage settlement.

Americans first saw the range as a quick source of timber to produce charcoal, and as a free place to graze cattle. With the arrival of federal control and the Forest Service during the Progressive Era at the turn of the century, the Sangres were operated to serve national ends.

Need more wool to clothe the soldiers fighting the Huns? Then run more sheep in the Sangres, to the extent that the entire range was severely overgrazed during WWI, and took years to recover. Need more timber to satisfy various national demands? Pull it out of the Sangres, whether it pays or not. Need to create a recreation constituency for the Forest Service? Eliminate the big carnivores from the Sangres, but still present the area as pristine wilderness.

Thus does Wolf connect the saga of the Sangres, an obscure and remote mountain range surrounded by valleys whose poverty rates have rivalled any in the nation, to the broad sweep of American history.

And he doesn’t stop there. He’s got some suggestions for future management, including a Conservation Land Trust which would attempt to serve local and regional interests, rather than the “national interest” as defined by a remote Congress which can change directions faster than the wind.

Toward that end, Wolf has been organizing community meetings about future management of the Sangres. This isn’t the place to address those meetings (I’ve been to a couple of them), but he does make a compelling argument that Official Wilderness represents, to some degree, an attempt to preserve (like an insect in amber, static and forever unchanging) a region in natural flux where the mountains are still rising.

As for problems with the book, its organization took me aback at first. I’m a linear type — I want a book to move in a chronological, or perhaps a cartographic, progression. So I found the shifting vantages, from personal to ethnic group to historic figure, rather confusing at first. I got used to it, though.

Some of the forest-related (both trees and administration) material seemed needlessly technical and overdetailed, and there were a few lapses on dates.

For instance, the original Homestead Act was passed in 1862, not 1864. The Ludlow Massacre was in 1914, not 1913. Wolf has the railroad crossing Poncha Pass in 1890, when it actually crossed Poncha in 1881 to reach the Orient Mine. The 1890 construction was from Villa Grove to Alamosa. But he does catch the important thing — the connection of the Sangres to an industrial complex at Pueblo.

The photos (Barbara Sparks offers some explanation and tips) and maps augment the text well (though the map on page 22 should be bigger, as the legends strain my bifocals). I felt deprived that this book isn’t of coffee-table dimensions, for the photos and maps deserve larger pages.

Once I got into it, the book moved right along, telling me much that I have always wanted to know about those mountains that rise at the south end of Teller Street.

Not that it was always easy reading. But few trails in the Sangres offer easy hiking, either, and they still provide ample rewards for the effort. So also with Colorado’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

— E.Q.