On a spring or summer day, the clouds that drift over New Mexico’s San Luis Valley create a mural of soul touching beauty. As the sun rises or sets on the endless vista, these apparitions in their infinite and abstract form, create a mosaic of shadow and light that alternately climbs or descends the sides of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. The image is as beautiful and ephemeral as a look into a kaleidoscope.
Time has done little to change this big valley. What visitors here today see when they come to camp, hunt, fish or simply recreate are the same things Natives, Mexicans and Spaniards saw centuries ago. The Valley still sustains the scores of wildlife that have roamed here for millennia. The wildflowers that paint the spring and summer contours still provide the same explosive beauty. In the valley, time seems to stand still.
The descendants of these groups are also a constant in this northeastern New Mexico land that “bounds up to Colorado,” said Val Vigil, whose family has occupied its own little corner of the Valley for decades. Vigil, a Thornton accountant and former Colorado legislator, is a member of the Rio Costilla Cooperative Livestock Association, a group that owns and occupies 80,000 acres of this land.
“My dad was a member of the Association,” Vigil said. But even before that, there were members of Vigil’s family along with a couple of hundred others who oversaw the land. Today, the RCCLA numbers 182 members. It used to be more. A number of original members sold away their portions. “They sold away pieces of their property to pay back taxes,” Vigil surmises. “The best land was sold.” Their membership ended with the sale.
The tone in Vigil’s voice as he conveys the story embodies the same one people use when they can only shake their head in sadness or despair. Sure, he said, they got the money. “But why? Now they won’t have a place to get firewood,” or even the simple pleasure of knowing they own a piece of legacy land.
It is legacy land because it is part of a land grant awarded to the original families living there nearly 175 years ago. And before parcels of the land began getting sold off, the land stretched to nearly 200,000 acres.
The grant, according to the RCCLA’s history, was made to Luis Lee and Narciso Beaubien in 1843 by the Republic of Mexico. The Maxwell Land Grant, just east of the Sangre de Cristo property, followed in 1860. The grants remained intact when New Mexico gained statehood in 1912.
There may have even been more sold to speculators eager to get their hands on this amazing property. But in “the 1970’s, the RCCLA hired Elias Vigil to manage it.” Vigil said his nephew turned things around. “He commercialized the elk hunting on the land,” said Vigil. Today, elk hunting is responsible for $100,000 in annual revenue to the Association. There are also fees for the camping and fishing that attract hundreds of visitors each year.
Vigil said most of the RCCLA’s membership remains in New Mexico. But each year it holds a reunion which Vigil attends. But he also makes other visits, too. “We go there every Fourth of July,” he said. The date holds special meaning to him because “my father passed away on the Fourth.”
The RCCLA’s membership should, said Vigil, remain stable. Fees from hunters and campers are a steady source of income. But it also controls water rights on the 80,000 acres. Vigil said “we’re going through litigation” on rights to the oil and gas. There are also fees going into the RCCLA’s coffers from grazing rights.
The RCCLA’s bylaws ensure that the land will remain in the hands of the families who now claim ownership. “The bylaws say that any new member coming in has to have blood ties to an existing member. You can’t just sell it to anyone.” What Vigil owns, he said, will go to his heirs.
The land has been part of Vigil’s and other RCCLA members’ families for generations. But he said it’s still a source of wonder when he visits that the same natural beauty that touched its first inhabitants and, later, Europeans, is what he stands on and looks out upon. Very plain, very simply, he said, “It’s tierra.”