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Back at the Ranch

An epic court battle over Colorado's most troubled piece of real estate has reached a historic turning point -- and none too soon. Many of the original parties in the dispute over the 77,000-acre Taylor Ranch are no longer alive, and those who survive have waited decades for some resolution to the long-running litigation.

Last month, in a stunning 4-2 decision, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that a group of landowners in Costilla County, descendants of Hispanic settlers who came to the San Luis Valley 150 years ago, have rights of access to the ranch for grazing and gathering firewood and timber. The decision reverses several lower-court rulings denying the landowners' claims; it also complicates matters for former Enron executive Lou Lung Pai, who bought the ranch for a reported $23 million a few years ago and has since become embroiled in the forty-year feud over access to the land ("The Mystery of Pai," April 18).

"It's been a long time coming," says Jeff Goldstein, the Denver attorney who filed the case on behalf of locals in 1981, "but this is a truly incredible decision. It's one of the most aggressive of its kind you'll see anywhere."

The roots of the conflict stretch back to the 1840s, when Carlos Beaubien acquired the million-acre Sangre de Cristo land grant, which was issued by the Republic of Mexico in an effort to secure its northern frontier. To entice settlers, Beaubien offered small grants of land while setting aside certain common areas for grazing, wood-gathering and other uses. Following the Mexican-American War, Beaubien's title was confirmed by Congress, but as the land fell into other hands, the rights of the settlers to the upland areas became obscured. Still, locals continued to use the land they called la sierrain common until North Carolina lumberman Jack Taylor purchased the property in 1960 and began to erect fences and forcibly eject trespassers.

As a range war erupted between Taylor's men and local farmers and ranchers, Taylor went to federal court to "perfect" his title. In state court, though, Goldstein argued that the settlers' heirs had established rights of use based on custom, treaty and surviving documents. The case outlasted many of the original plaintiffs, as well as Jack Taylor, who died in the late 1980s. Taylor's son, Zachary, rebuffed efforts by the State of Colorado to acquire the property and restore some local access rights. The younger Taylor eventually sold the ranch to companies controlled by Pai, who cashed in $353 million in Enron stock months before the scandal-plagued energy giant's collapse.

The recent Supreme Court decision is a startling departure from the courts' usually fierce support of the rights of private-property owners. While rejecting the locals' claims under Mexican law and denying access for hunting, fishing or recreation, the justices affirmed that Beaubien's grant to the settlers does establish "implied rights" to pasturage and timber on the ranch. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey notes, "We are attempting to construe a 150-year-old document written in Spanish by a French Canadian who obtained a conditional grant to an enormous land area under Mexican law and perfected it under American law."

But there is no doubt, Mullarkey adds, that the settlers would not have come to the San Luis Valley in the first place without access to the mountain tract, or that they shared its resources for more than a century: "Although these rights were necessary to the settlers' very existence, and although Taylor had ample notice of these rights, Taylor fenced his land over forty years ago. It is an understatement to say that this is an injustice."

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Rebecca Love Kourlis argues that the Beaubien document doesn't establish a specific right of access to the ranch. Another dissent by Justice Alex Martinez contends that the locals' rights should include hunting, fishing and recreation, as well.

How the ruling will affect the future of the property remains unclear. Pai, who was advised of the ongoing litigation before he purchased the ranch, now faces the prospect of seeing the land's valuation drop, even as lawsuits against him and other former Enron executives by burned shareholders continue to pile up. Pai attorney Keith Tooley declined to comment on the ruling.

The case could still be appealed to the United States Supreme Court, but the likelihood of such a move is anybody's guess. Attorney Al Wolf, who has represented the Taylor family in the litigation since its inception, did not respond to a request for comment.

In an unusual move, the Colorado Supreme Court has also retained jurisdiction over the case to determine which landowners may have access to the ranch. Lower courts had reduced the number of "valid" plaintiffs in the suit to fewer than a dozen, but Goldstein argues that the historic-use rights may extend to as many as a thousand landowners in the county and their families.

Working out the logistics of access among such a large class of claimants could be difficult, but Goldstein points to similar arrangements among historic ranching and farming cooperatives in New Mexico. "This community administered these rights for over a hundred years," he says. "I think they should be allowed to develop a plan. I don't think it should be presumed that there's going to be discord or that they're going to abuse their rights."

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