Costilla residents alarmed by fencing at Cielo Vista Ranch

Photo by Diane Drekmann Shirley Romero-Otero speaks to protesters gathered on Sept. 22 at a fence on the outskirts of Chama that is being built by Cielo Vista Ranch owner William Harrison.

CHAMA — Residents of Chama, El Rito, and elsewhere in Costilla County were shocked recently to see an 8-foot fence in their backyard, and outraged to learn the Cielo Vista Ranch owner William Harrison intends to "fence in" his adjacent 83,000-acre property.

On Sept. 22, protesters of the barrier gathered in Chama. They allege Harrison is fencing the land so he can trophy hunt with friends and exclude people who have ancestral rights to that land. They allege he is preventing the land-rights owners from getting necessary firewood and water to survive.

In 2017, Texas billionaire Harrison bought the ranch after it was listed for $105 million. The property includes 14,047 Culebra Peak and numerous 13,000-foot peaks along the spine of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Access and rights issues to the ranch by local residents date back to the 1860s — and have been contentious — and litigated ever since. In 1960, then-owner Jack Taylor enflamed ill will by fencing the property.

The protest was held next to the fence on the outskirts of Chama where community activist Shirley Romero-Otero and other community members voiced their opposition to the fence.

Romero-Otero reminded people, "The heirs of the Sangre de Christo Land Grant trump any owner's rights." A Colorado Supreme Court decision, "permanently reaffirmed the rights of the Chicano and Mexican descendants to use the land in La Sierra."

Carlos DeLeon is the ranch manager for the 83,000-acre ranch. In an interview with the Valley Courier, he confirmed the fence is being built, "Yeah, we're building a fence. It is private property, we have bison and we have agricultural property, we are allowed to build a fence to keep our animals in."

DeLeon did not say how much of the property owned by Harrison will be fenced and said, "The ranch is over 80,000 acres." When asked if the entire ranch would be fenced, he said, "We're fencing the sections, I couldn't tell you exactly the acreage. We're not fencing all the way around it we're just fencing the areas where the bison will be traveling.

"They’re trying to make this a county deal and it is not. It is Costilla County, sure. A handful of individuals who are just upset the fence is going up and they want to make rules to make it a person can't put this kind of fence in."

DeLeon said access to the ranch would not be affected by the fence, "People have nine entry points to the ranch, anyone who has access rights can enter the ranch to gather timber, firewood or graze livestock."

DeLeon said there are "several thousand," people who have keys to the ranch and no new gates will be built within the new fencing.

According to protesters, ranch employees harass and prevent them from using the land, they claim laws are being broken. They allege the fence is a barrier to the wildlife who can't roam or are trapped within the closure.

Costilla County Commissioners recently signed a moratorium on the construction of the fence. It was ignored, said the protesters.

Romero-Otero has retained a lawyer and told the crowd, "They will get a letter of engagement to give to the district Judge, who can give William Harrison a restraining order to stop building the fence for six months. We have to keep the pressure on."

She has dedicated her life to protecting the rights of the heirs of the original settlers, and urged everyone, "Learn your history. Be vigilant. Keep exercising your rights. Keep your cell phone handy. Document and record any incidents. "

William Quintana made an impassioned plea, "We have to find a legal way to stop this. We want no violence," Quintana said.

Bernadette Quintana spoke about the importance of having land rights for the next generation. Rocky Madrid mentioned the importance of protecting the watershed and the acequias.

Raymond Medina said, "We have to think about going forward. The past is the past. We have to work together."

At the protest, Romero-Otero urged everyone to sign a petition that will go to Governor Jared Polis, legislators, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to address the issue.

A meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Oct. 1 at Centennial School to discuss the fence and elect new representatives for the Land Rights Council.

Courier News Editor John Waters contributed to this report.