The Crestone Eagle, December 2005:

Crestone spiritual centers voice their concerns to County Commissioners

by Doug Larsen

In late October two Saguache County Commissioners, Sam Pace and Mike Spearman, toured Baca spiritual centers accompanied by the centers’ representatives and myself.

A coalition of 9 spiritual groups—most of whom are located in a row along Camino Baca Grande—have formed the Crestone Spiritual Alliance (CSA) to address common issues such as the potential impact of National Forest activity adjacent to their retreat centers. They wanted to inform the Commissioners about their concerns.

We convened at the Carmelite Monastery where introductions occurred over chai and pumpkin muffins, provided by the Ashram. Prior to visiting our first site—the Carmelite chapel—Sister Suzie provided facts and history about Carmelite land size (100 acres), hermitages (16, plus 1 cabin on a 35 acre mountain tract), as well as the group’s migration from Sedona and Nova Scotia to here in search of quiet. Then it was on to Yeshe Khorlo, a Buddhist retreat center and the first site along “spiritual row.” After pulling into the parking lot, some 12 of us traipsed up a trail to get a sense of the land and a glimpse of one of four retreat cabins located on the 310 acre site.

Before proceeding up the path, participants spun two large decorated cylindrical prayer wheels meant to spread blessings through vast space for the benefit of all beings.

Next stop: the Ashram, an eco-friendly off the grid mini-paradise. This 101 acre site draws water from lower Spanish creek for domestic and agricultural use. The director pointed out that water preservation is a priority for the Ashram. We visited their 3 thousand gallon capacity reservoir and a water measuring tank. Besides domestic use, the creek water, which is purified, nurtures a garden and greenhouse that still produced succulent tomatoes, even at that late date.

We then entered the incense perfumed gift shop, which contains a solar powered fax machine and computer, along with books, statues, textiles and garments. It was here that Ashram Director Ramloti broached the sales tax subject. Her organization grosses about $80K in annual sales from an estimated 7K visitors passing through the portals. Discussion ensued about the wisdom of initiating a county sales tax. No argument there about that.

We traveled down the road to the Shumei center. We didn’t enter their facility, but stood roadside while participants informed the Commissioners about diverse beneficial contributions the organization provides to our community.

Next we bumped our way up to KTTG’s Karmapa stupa site. A stupa is built to represent, honor and broadcast the enlightened body, speech and mind of the Buddha. From this particular stupa site one may enjoy a vast Valley view among other things. Located above the front entrance to the Park and National Forest Land, it is possible to see over to Deadman’s Creek. Some discussion ensued about road and entrance locations as well as the whereabouts of Alpine Camp, which is a proposed staging site for Park visitors, particularly horse packers.

The next stop was the Vajra Vidya Buddhist retreat center. Another eco-friendly facility, this premises includes a biodynamic garden and a state of the art kitchen. With 1/3 of the proposed facility constructed, it currently offers 8 retreat rooms and also houses two resident Tibetan teachers. There is a bookshop and office room, from which texts are shipped globally. The issue of sales tax arose again, since this center also raises potential sales tax revenues.

While agriculture reigns Valley wide, up here against the hills there’s not much economy beyond construction and a dishwasher or cashier job. However, a legitimate hidden economy exists through these diverse spiritual centers. They bring in visitors—an estimated 20 thousand a year—and those visitors drop money for food, lodging, fuel and goods, which if taxed could help a county strapped for funds. Surely this contribution is a consideration when balancing the desire of the spiritual centers to maintain their peaceful environments against potential disruption from visitors accessing surrounding federal land through a north Baca entrance.

These and other matters were discussed at the Crestone Mountain Zen Center, where lunch was served and the discussion went on into the afternoon. While acknowledging the unique nature of the Baca spiritual communities and their contribution to county economy, the Commissioners mentioned other critical economic and political considerations.

Politically the County must work with 3 federal agencies: the National Park Service, Fish & Wildlife, and the National Forest Service, each of which has its own powers, domains, and agendas. Bringing them to the table and achieving consensus will be a lengthy and time consuming process.

The economic factor is equally complex. The County, which is the area’s largest and best paying single employer, is operating at a $200K-$300K annual deficit, and revenue sources are slim. Voters remain reluctant to approve a sales tax. And the County receives only 20-30% of property taxes, the majority of which goes to the water and school districts.

Asked if they had hard figures for how much County revenue a north Park entrance might generate, Commissioner Spearman said, “No.” Sam Pace said the amount would be “minimal” because while commercial property carries the highest tax rate, when you offset that with the number of visitors and attendant upkeep, there might not be a gain.

Both agreed that access along the Camino Baca Grande, and particularly along the high road (officially referred to as the Dreamway), is undesirable. However, as Mr. Spearman emphasized more than once, compromise is necessary, and it’s a word he favors over “No”.

The County seeks solutions for a balanced budget, and also sees the need to provide access to public lands. Sam would like to preserve the spiritual communities’ unique identities while providing that access.

One of the CSA’s concerns is hunting activity above their retreat centers. Will their concerns be addressed? Yes, said the Commissioners. Mike said the fact the CSA called this meeting automatically makes it a part of the negotiation process.

The Commissioners requested documentation of what they were shown on their visit so the County and other relevant agencies can be educated on Crestone’s unique needs. They further stated a willingness to work with the CSA to find solutions to these issues.

We’ll see where it leads.