Colorado's longest-running land dispute enters a new round of lawyerly arguments this week, sixteen years after a historic court decision that awarded to hundreds of Costilla County residents access rights to a mountain property that their ancestors had used in common. This time around, the battle pits the descendants of Hispanic settlers in the San Luis Valley against the heir of a Texas oil fortune who recently purchased the Cielo Vista Ranch, 83,000 acres of rugged backcountry along the spine of the Sangre de Cristos that includes a fourteener, eighteen other peaks above 13,000 feet — and mountains of trouble.
At a Colorado Court of Appeals hearing today, September 5, attorneys for William Bruce Harrison, the fourth owner of the ranch since 2004, will try to convince the justices to undo a decision that awarded heirs of the Sangre de Cristo land-grant access to Cielo Vista for grazing and gathering firewood and timber.
"We knew they were going to appeal," says Shirley Romero Otero, the president of the San Luis-based Land Rights Council, which has led the battle for the locals' access rights, "and they're appealing everything."
Westword has covered the conflicts between locals and wealthy owners of the property extensively over the past twenty years, but the roots of the standoff stretch back much further, to a time before statehood, before Denver even existed. In the 1840s, 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 sierra in common until North Carolina lumberman Jack Taylor purchased the property in 1960 and began to erect fences and forcibly eject trespassers.
A range war soon erupted between Taylor's men and local farmers and ranchers. Taylor went to federal court to "perfect" his title, but attorneys for the locals 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 Lou Pai, the former Enron executive, who cashed in $353 million in Enron stock months before the scandal-plagued energy giant's collapse.
In 2002, a stunning 4-2 decision by the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed that Beaubien's grant to the settlers established "implied rights" to pasturage and timber (but not hunting and fishing) on the ranch. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey noted, "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."
There is no doubt, Mullarkey added, 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 2004, Pai sold the ranch for $60 million — roughly three times what he'd paid for it — to a group of Texas investors. The state's Supremes retained jurisdiction over the case while a title company tried to determine which locals could be certified as land-grant heirs and could be issued keys to the ranch's access gates. That process was expensive and protracted, Romero says, and wasn't completed until last year.
"We thought it would take two or three years," she says, "but it went on and on and cost millions. That's why it took so long: greed."
Last year Harrison purchased the ranch, which had been listed for $105 million by a real estate site specializing in premier ranch properties. Harrison's father, oil billionaire Bruce Harrison, died in 2004 after being attacked by bees while on his tractor; his son was only seventeen at the time but reportedly came into his inheritance after he turned thirty last year. Earlier this year he plunked down $22.75 million for oceanside property in Southern California with a view of Catalina. His attorneys are now challenging the process by which access to his Colorado ranch was granted to so many key-holders.
Romero says members of her group met with Harrison last year and expressed concerns about road conditions and fire dangers on the ranch. "We've taken care of that mountain for more than 150 years, and that is why the wealthy speculators are drawn here," she says. Harrison, she adds, "claims that he is a conservationist but told us that he purchased the mountain because he 'needs a place to play.'''
Harrison has offered to buy easement rights back from locals for $300 each. In a letter to the community, he complained about poaching and vandalism on the ranch and said that his offer was met with "a venomous reaction" and threats. "As the owner of this property, I will fully respect the rights of the law-abiding easement holders with whom I have no quarrel," he wrote.
There's been little communication between the land-grant heirs and the new owner since that letter. But both sides will have thirty minutes for oral arguments starting at 9:30 a.m. today in Division 3 of the Colorado Court of Appeals, 2 East 14th Avenue.
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