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Spiritual Considerations and the Law

Vanessa Richardson


The community of Crestone and the surrounding area is rich in many ways—among them are the stunning natural beauty of the landscape, the diverse flora and fauna, the aquifer that lies beneath the valley, and the area’s potential for collecting large amounts of solar energy. However, the thing that makes the community unique, and what is perhaps Crestone’s greatest resource, is the concentration of spiritual groups that have made this place home. The Crestone community hosts approximately twenty religious centers from an eclectic array of spiritual practices, including Zen Buddhists, Carmelite nuns, and practitioners of Shumei, just to name a few. Spirituality is a large part of the culture here, in a way that isn’t easy to find elsewhere. According to Ralph Abrams, one resident, this is an important part of what makes Crestone so special. He says of the spiritual and cultural life, “For the most part, you can go up to anyone on the street and ask them about their spiritual practices…everybody understands that here and would respond somewhat in kind. Can you do that walking around New York? In Kansas City? No. It’s really unusual.”

Obviously the Crestone community is spiritually and culturally unique, but in addition to this, many residents have asserted that even the land itself has special properties. Practitioners in many different traditions believe that the San Luis Valley has characteristics that make for a better place to pursue their spiritual goals. In many cases these characteristics go beyond just silence and clean air into the realm of the sacred. For this reason, the concerns of community members regarding the proposed Lexam drilling may go beyond those of the environmentalists. For instance, Debra Floyd, a.k.a. The Village Witch said of the proposed drilling, “It will destroy this place. If you started drilling here, you would completely disturb the energies at every single level, every single plane here. There are hidden levels to this place that should never ever be touched by outsiders. Drilling is a violation.” Statements like this one clearly reflect personal spiritual beliefs and a subjective worldview. One fundamental issue involved here—in this unique community where spirituality is so central—is how to bring these spiritual concerns to bear with regards to the proposed drilling. How much influence, if any, can the subjective beliefs of Crestone residents concerning this land have upon the legalities of subsurface mineral rights?

As Crestone residents themselves have noted, the value of the sacred, the spiritual, and the cultural is much more difficult to quantify than, say, the price of natural gas. One resident, William Buehler, says that he understands that describing the apparently subjective nature of sacred land will be a challenge. “The big problem is spiritual dynamics: what is that? And why would that be significant? In a way that is a really tough thing. It is so subjective. Trying to objectify it is really difficult.” Without an objective way of measuring these things, the protests of the community could be reduced to just another “not in my backyard” argument. This “NIMBY” argument is clearly not a very strong one in the eyes of the law. One could say that any community is its own unique culture and that any people living in an area have a special connection to the land there. Aside from Native American land rights, there has been no case law established concerning the rights of spiritual communities. Lexam’s ownership of the subsurface mineral rights currently overrides all other considerations.

William Buehler noted that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of August 11, 1978 could be an important legal precedent for defending the land as significant. When asked about the importance of tangible artifacts, such as graves, Buehler responded that there must be actual evidence of Native Americans having used the land and there is no such evidence on the Baca land. He said the Freedom Act is “Irrelevant unless we can establish that we, here, consider it sacred. We have to demonstrate what they [ Lexam] are doing adversely affects what we are doing.”

Currently, many residents believe that drilling here would adversely affect them on both physical and spiritual levels. However, the spiritual values of Crestone are not necessarily translatable to the wider culture. From an outsider’s perspective, the activities at Crestone may be insignificant. Certainly only a very small percentage of the population has benefited from visiting the area or from going on retreat. In contrast, fossil fuels are recognized nationwide as being necessary to the functioning of our society. Crestone residents are not blind to the fact that they themselves rely on these fuels, many of which have been extracted from someone else’s backyard. So the question is, should spiritualist views of what is valuable be a part of a legal system that is standardized to serve the majority of the population? Also, is it even possible to quantify spirituality and culture in terms the law? These are questions that must be addressed if Crestone is to set a precedent for the legal rights of spiritual and cultural communities.

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