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The last word about native status

Letter by Jeanne Englert

Mountain Life – July 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

The Latest Words About Native Status


“Last settlers,” they called us when our grassroots group organized in 1979 to oppose the controversial Animas-La Plata water project in southwestern Colorado. That wasn’t true. Half of us were Colorado natives, some with roots going back several generations. My great-grandfather arrived in Auraria in 1858, when it wasn’t Denver yet, and he was the first building contractor and sheriff of Arapahoe County. My maternal great-great-grandfather arrived in Auraria in 1860, and co-founded the Tivoli Brewery.

But that ancestral Colorado pedigree meant nothing in Durango. If you opposed the project, you were an outsider, a “no-growther.” If you were for it, you were a “native” even if you’d only lived in La Plata County three years.

At one annual Democratic County picnic, I got into an altercation with a staunch project true-believer. I explained to him our mostly-Western roots. Pres Ellsworth, founder of the Animas River rafting industry, may not be a Colorado native, I said, “but, my God, he’s a direct descendant of Brigham Young –and his first wife, too. Sheessh!”

“You just don’t understand,” he replied. “You weren’t born HERE.” (He made it sound like my mother would have had to drop me into the world right there on the east bank of the La Plata River.)

I finally got so fed-up with being called a last settler who, once there, wanted to pull in the plank, and with their silly premise that building this boondoggle project at a cost of a billion dollars would foster growth, that I wrote a letter to the local newspaper.

Using superior illogic, I noted that the McCulloch family, which opposed the project, had homesteaded in La Plata County in 1887, and that one candidate that year for county commissioner, who supported the project, had lived there only three years. I then said that if it was we “last settlers” who were giving Fred Kroeger, the local burgher who was chief project promoter, so much trouble over the project, then it seemed to me he’d be the last man in town to support it.

“Fred,” I concluded, “don’t you know? Growth brings more people like me.”

Of course our nativism or lack thereof was utterly irrelevant. The issue was whether the project was good for the area or not. We thought not. It would cost a billion dollars, would dewater the Animas River, waste enough electricity to serve 63,000 people with its 13 electric-guzzling pumps, and would irrigate high-altitude farms worth only $300 an acre at a cost of over $5,000 an acre. In short, it was water we didn’t need at a cost we couldn’t afford.

This point was brought home to me when, after almost two years of wrangling over it, the district court judge formed the water conservancy district that would tax us for this project without a vote. Three weeks later he skipped town to retire in Sun City, Arizona.

We’d be stuck with the congestion, the increased crime during construction, the humongous costs for municipal water, (including another water treatment plant, an additional cost not covered by the project), loss of our local fishing and recreation on the Animas River, and forced payment of ad valorum property taxes to a non-elected board.

It’s not how long you’ve been here, I thought. IT’S HOW LONG YOU PLAN TO STAY.

Jeanne Englert