The Cimarron Cutoff and the BSA

Springer, New Mexico     Breaking camp on the East Fork of the San Juan River, we dried out our gear and were off again.  Chaco caught and released a small brown trout in the San Juan as we dodged tubers going down the river towards Pagosa Springs, then both jumped in for a cold moment to rinse a couple of layers of dirt off, before hitting the road.  We were headed through northern New Mexico.  We glanced at the expansion of the famous clinic in Tierra Amarilla, and I told Chaco about the Tijerina courthouse raid and tried to explain Spanish land grants.  We stopped at an abandoned rest area at the unmarked continental divide for lunch.  We passed over the spectacular Rio Grande Gorge, noted the changes that continue to mark Taos, and headed east.

We didn’t stop.  We were bound for the often spectacular and little recognized drive between Taos and Cimarron, New Mexico, a curvy route through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and then a wonderful drive past Eagle Nest along the spectacular canyon as the Cimarron River curves its way down to the Canadian River.

Cimarron is best known for two reasons.  The Cimarron Cutoff or Cimarron Branch was for a time the most popular route of the Santa Fe Trail, cutting southwest from Fort Dodge, Kansas to Cimarron and over the mountains to Santa Fe.  Cimarron is also the headquarters of Philmont Scout Ranch operated by the Boy Scouts of America.  I have a soft spot for the area, having participated in the Philmont program at 13 on the verge of my 14th birthday.  I had mowed yards in New Orleans all that summer to come up with the portion then required to make the trip.  Once there, we then humped a backpack over a strenuous trail going up and down, crossing streams, and camping rough under a poncho lean-to.  In my tour we were hit by 4 inches of hail in mid-summer.  We tried fly fishing and tying our own flies.  We qualified on a gun range with the NRA.  It was a great experience in wonderful and unforgettable country.

The ranch is now over 140,000 acres or about 219 square miles.  Waite Phillips, the rich oil baron founder of Phillips 66, a piece of which is now owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway and another piece of which is ConocoPhillips when the company was split.  He had also deeded his building in Oklahoma to support maintenance of the scout ranch.  In 1938, the Boy Scouts and Phillips founded the ranch based on his gift conditions.  Philmont’s continues to operate under the protection of the BSA’s bankruptcy filing in dealing with claims of not dealing responsibly about sexual abuse of boys.  Controversially in the Boy Scouts time of troubles, they recently mortgaged the ranch, which many believe violates Phillips original gift.  Lawyers for those abused see Philmont as the BSA’s primary asset of course.

This is rugged, dry, beautiful country that always seems caught on the edges of history, but still endures, hopefully to make continued contributions to the whole country in the future.  The land deserves that its best values be shared and maintained, but that may be a struggle against the contradictions of its managers, and whether they can act on the values and oaths they claim to hold.


City Amenities and the Prices Paid for Them

Pagosa Springs   In Durango, Colorado, we felt like we had struck gold, having hauled out bikes across Texas and New Mexico.  We stumbled, almost literally, onto a bike trail that had seemingly been recently completed along the pretty little Animas River that runs through the town.  We, meaning my son and I, knew it was a more recent addition because of the change of paving materials from modern concrete to asphalt, as we came to another nice bridge across the river.  Coming back, we crossed a park and to our amazement a young buck in the felt simply stood and stared at us as we passed within feet on our return.  The next day we found the town center of Pagosa Springs similarly gussied up with another nice bike trail linking the center of town and the hots springs along the San Juan River with several other parks.  The downtown area was bumping with literally hundreds of people, young and old, tubing through this stretch of small rapids along the river.

What wonderful urban amenities!  I vividly remember time spent over the years in both towns, especially Durango, when it was little more than another dusty western town serving ranch and mining and perhaps visitors headed for Mesa Verde National Park.  Who lives in these towns now?  A windshield survey might lead to the wrong conclusions, so I’ll be careful not to spit too hard where we had just luxuriated.

Sadly, I couldn’t help thinking that these improvements in downtown and riverfront development, perhaps for businesses and tourists, and nominally for residents of these areas, was really paid for by Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds.  CDBG funds, as everyone should know, but many forget, especially mayors and city councils, are designed to improve the lives of the lower income residents in a community.  Although I know this fact, as well as I know my own name, I was reminded of this while finishing Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of American:  St. Louis and the Violent History of America, while we were off the grid.  Johnson quotes an ACORN report in St. Louis about the abuse of CDBG funds in pimping on lower income census tracks in order to do a version of urban development while displacing the poor and, worse, making them pay for it.  Johnson follows the money to the fancy campus of Express Scripts and their $50 million data center construction which didn’t change their property tax evaluation thanks to tax increment financing (TIF) and CDBG, thereby short changing the local school districts and making the poor pay their bills both directly and indirectly.

Johnson is of course writing about St. Louis and the violent, racist, and exploitative tentacles that spring from its position at the confluence of great rivers and great greed.  Nonetheless, his short primer on urban development and financing is valuable.  There’s a history of CDBG abuse and misuse that is waiting to be written, and needs to be done soon, before more pay the price.