SAN LUIS — In 2002, in a historic ruling in the Lobato v. Taylor land rights case, the Colorado Supreme Court settled a decades-long legal struggle by the heirs of the 1844 Sangre de Cristo Land Grant.
The 80,000-acre parcel is known locally as La Sierra (the Mountain Tract). It is vital to the Culebra River acequia villages in Costilla County which rely on these access rights to sustain a robust and sustainable local agricultural economy. The ruling restored to the heirs and successors of the land grant rights to gather firewood and construction materials and to graze livestock.
In 2005, more than 350 families received keys for access to the land grant and the exercise of these rights.
On September 5 the San Luis Land Rights Council (LRC) and its supporters will have to return to the courts to defend these rights yet again. Shirley M. Romero Otero, the president of the LRC, expressed the view that the ability of the heirs to use La Sierra remains a vital part of the economic stability and cultural survival of a unique farming community that is the living heart of the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area. The scheduled September 5 hearing is before the Colorado Court of Appeals in Denver.
The latest legal round was triggered by the new private owner of La Sierra (a.k.a. Cielo Vista Ranch), William Bruce Harrison, the scion of a wealthy Texas family. Harrison is the fourth owner of the grant since the 2002 ruling. Prior owners included the disgraced head of the now defunct Enron Energy Services, Lou Pai. In the mid 1990s, then Colorado Governor Roy Romer established the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant Commission to try and resolve the dispute through a buy-out that would have converted the land into a state park and wildlife management area. The deal collapsed when Zachary Taylor, Jr. rejected an offer for $21 million in 1997. Harrison acquired ownership in February of this year for a reported $105 million. The LRC has always opposed state ownership and emphasizes litigation to restore historic land use rights.
Established in 1978, the LRC was inspired by a legacy of local resistance led by the late Apolinar Rael during the 1960s land grant movement. In 1981, the LRC filed a class-action lawsuit against Jack T. Taylor, the North Carolina timber baron who acquired the grant in 1960. Taylor eventually lost because in 1960 he had promptly sued to keep the locals out but violated due process and equal protection standards when filing a quiet title action. Taylor and the lower courts failed to inform the majority of the land grant heirs, denying them their day in court to challenge Taylor’s quiet title action.
The LRC sought to re-establish long-held community use rights to La Sierra, which the people were legally entitled to as confirmed under Mexican and U.S. law. The grant was patented by an act of Congress on June 21, 1860. After more than 37 years of court battles, the Culebra acequia village communities regained access rights when the Colorado Supreme Court issued its historic ruling in Lobato v. Taylor on June 24, 2002.
The pursuit of land speculation by wealthy outsiders has led to the sale and re-sale of the land grant over the years. In this environment, it has proved difficult for the heirs to develop and implement a co-management plan to protect these rights and sustain a healthy ecosystem that makes exercise of these rights possible.
Romero said, “There have been four different owners over the past 16 years since our rights were restored. How can we develop a plan when the private speculative parties keep changing? We now have an owner who wants to strip us of our rights. It is hard to negotiate a management plan with a hostile party. The fact that the land grant is constantly subject to speculation has made it difficult for the community to adopt and implement a co-management plan.”
Romero added, “Instead of trying to undermine established law and precedent, Mr. Harrison should work with us to take care of the mountain and restore the forests from damage caused by excessive logging operations by the Taylor family. We’ve taken care of that mountain for more than 150 years and that is why the wealthy speculators are drawn here. Our knowledge of the ecology of La Sierra is the only thing that has sustained this watershed. Mr. Harrison should work with us to protect the source of our heritage and livelihoods instead of attacking legally established rights.”
Romero described a recent meeting with the 30-year-old Harrison: “He claims that he is a conservationist but told us during a recent meeting [with the LRC] that he purchased the mountain because he ‘needs a place to play.’”
Dr. Devon G. Peña, a local farmer and president of The Acequia Institute and former officer with the Sangre de Cristo Acequia Association, said, “For the local acequia farmers who are land grant heirs, some of the most important rights tied to La Sierra are the oldest water rights in the state of Colorado. That mountain is our watershed and protecting the forest is vital to the survival of the oldest family farms in the state, especially in a time of climate change. It is astounding that we have a newcomer speculator who ignores legal precedent and the rights of the local people to continue sustainable use. The community has been a good protector of the land grant despite abuses by an ever-shifting cast of rich men seeking a prestigious playground.
“We advocate for a co-management plan that focuses on creating jobs for local people to work restoring the ecosystem of La Sierra that was so badly damaged by decades of excessive logging by private land speculators with no ties to the community.”
For more information contact Shirley M. Romero, president, Land Rights Council. Email: [email protected] Phone: 970-640-8014.
Caption: La Sierra