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Students and other people from San Luis holding protest signs
Shirley Romero-Otero, far left, outside the Colorado Supreme Court in Denver on Sept. 5, 2018 with students from Centennial High School in Costilla County. She brought the students to witness a state Appeals Court hearing over the access to the Cielo Vista Ranch by descendants of San Luis Valley settlers. (Meredith Turk, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s longest-running civil litigation is back in court as the latest billionaire owner of the storied Cielo Vista Ranch fights to restrict historic access claimed by heirs of the San Luis Valley’s original settlers.

Houston’s William Bruce Harrison, a 31-year-old scion to one of Texas’ biggest oil fortunes, bought the 83,000-acre Cielo Vista Ranch a year ago, shortly after it listed for $105 million. The sale, which marked the country’s largest ranch sale in 2017, included 14,047-foot Culebra Peak and 18 13,000-foot peaks stretched across 20 jagged miles of Sangre de Cristo ridgeline.

Harrison on Tuesday shared a report with The Colorado Sun from his ranch manager revealing an enclave overrun with trespassing, illegal fishing, antler harvesting, timber harvesting, gate and fence removal and road building. He also shared a letter he sent to the San Luis Land Rights Council asking for help enforcing court-ordered rules for visitors who have access rights to the ranch.

“There are some people who simply don’t want enforcement,” he wrote in the January 2018 letter to the council. “They want to abuse their rights, or exercise rights they don’t have or otherwise break the law. They do not appreciate the sanctity of this land.”

Court-ordered census took 15 years to certify users

Within months of Harrison buying the property, a nearly 15-year process of identifying, surveying and certifying original settlers of the ranch concluded, granting access to about 6,400 parcels of land to nearly 5,000 descendants of Spanish and Mexican homesteaders who colonized the San Luis Valley before Colorado was a state. That’s up from a few hundred people a decade ago.

The process was part of the 2002 Colorado Supreme Court decision — the second high-court decision in the decades-long range war — that restored historical access to descendants of the homesteaders, who were allowed to harvest timber and firewood for personal use, and graze a limited number of livestock.

Harrison bought the ranch from a group of Texas investors, who had purchased the property from disgraced Enron executive Lou Pai, who bought the ranch from a lumber baron named Jack Taylor in the late 1980s. All three previous owners had spent decades wrangling with locals who cited the historic land grant when seeking access to the ranch.

Harrison is continuing that trend. He has appealed the 2002 decision, which could only be challenged after the certification process concluded last fall. In December, he sent letters to the land grant heirs, offering $300 for their rights to the ranch.

“All these previous owners have been white men with privilege and deep pockets and they continue to use both to deny us access to property that has been used by our fathers and mothers, their fathers and mothers, and their fathers and mothers,” said Shirley Romero-Otero, president of the San Luis Land Rights Council, which formed in the late 1970s to fight Taylor’s push to deny access to the ranch.

Shirley Romero-Otero, 63, has been fighting since she was in her early 20s for access to the mountain land she calls La Sierra. (Meredith Turk, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Romero-Otero brought a bus full of San Luis Valley teens to the Colorado Court of Appeals on Wednesday, Sept. 5,  to hear arguments by Harrison’s legal team and heirs of the land grantees.

“The next generation will be there in full force,” said 63-year-old Romero-Otero, who was in her early 20s when she first started fighting for access to the mountain land she calls La Sierra.

Harrison comes from an oil fortune that dates back more than a century. His father, oil and land baron Bruce Harrison, died in a ranching accident in 2004, when William Harrison was 17.

According to a lawsuit he filed against his uncle involving his father’s estate, William Harrison was scheduled to receive his inheritance last year, when he turned 30. His company, Cathexis Oil & Gas, was recently connected to the sale of a $23 million, two-home beachfront spread south of Los Angeles.

In his appeal of the 2002 Colorado Supreme Court decision that returned the case to Costilla County District Court, Harrison argues that the heirs of the 1844 land grant failed to properly establish and prove their easement rights to access the land. Harrison, in a 52-page document filed with the Appeals Court in March, is seeking “a proper process” to evaluate those seeking profits off his ranch, according to a 52-page document filed with the Appeals Court in March.

“I have attempted to reach out”

In an email to The Colorado Sun, Harrison said he has not had a response to a letter he sent in January, explaining that he would suspend the appeal if he could work with the group. He also said his $300 offers to easement access holders was to “gauge the interest of individuals who may not use” the access rights.

He also forwarded an email from his ranch manager, which he posted on the ranch website, Sent in late May, the manager told his boss that locals have used machinery to build access roads on the ranch and that he has closed 19 illegal access gates to the property, asking that people use existing gates. One neighbor cut a fence and took dirt to build up an area on his property and dug a trench on the ranch to dump trash. Several miles of fence have been removed and locks have been taken off of gates. Trees are being cut and removed, ATV riders have been caught on the property and anglers have been trespassing, the manager wrote.

“Since I purchased the property, I have attempted to reach out to the Land Rights Council and have discussions about how we can move past the historical animosity which has existed between whoever the owner of Cielo Vista Ranch is, and certain members of the local community,” Harrison wrote in the letter to the council, noting that he would like to improve the ranch, clean up areas and repair logging damage.

“I think a proper land-management program would benefit everyone with rights to the ranch,” he wrote, adding that in the last 150 years, the number of easement holders for the property has grown from 150 to more than 5,000, a rate of growth that in the next few decades could give as many as 15,000 locals access to the ranch.

“But if I do it, if I spend money to improve the health of the ecosystem and the health of native grasses improve, we need to make sure we don’t have abuses and overuse such as multiple individuals putting 100 head of cattle on the ranch or people taking timber or firewood for commercial purposes or people who don’t have rights coming on the ranch for other purposes,” Harrison wrote.

He called the overuse of his property a “tragedy of the commons,” where “no one is incentivized to take care of the natural habitat and improve it.”

“We have a race to the bottom that everyone loses,” he wrote in his letter to the council, saying that he is open to “putting the pending appeal on hold while we try to work together.”

If Harrison wins, the heirs can appeal again to the Colorado Supreme Court. Harrison can appeal to the high court if he loses.

And then there is the issue of water

The mountainous acreage surrounding Culebra Peak in the Sangre de Cristo range has supported farmers in the San Luis Valley for centuries as a watershed that provides critical irrigation.

Many farmers have senior water rights that date back to before Colorado became a state, said Devon Peña, an anthropology professor who manages a 181-acre nonprofit research farm in Viejo San Acacio, a Costilla County community that irrigates with water from a ditch that was established in 1852.

Devon Peña manages a research farm near Cielo Vista Ranch and is worried that timber cutting on the ranch is worsening drought conditions for farmers that rely on ditches fed by spring snow melt from the massive upstream property. (Meredith Turk, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Peña said there has been clear-cutting and logging in recent years by people with legal and illegal access. Combined with a warming climate, the treeless slopes are rushing the spring snowmelt and farmers are not seeing enough water in the late summer.

“We rely on senior surface water rights from the snowpack in the Culebra Peak watershed, and lots of logging has impacted the flow of that water,” he said. “So instead of two to three cuts of hay we get one. That’s changed our ability to produce hay and other crops.”

This summer, the Spring Fire scorched more than 105,000 acres and destroyed more than 145 homes on the southern border of the Cielo Vista Ranch. Romero-Otero says fire, timber-harvesting and the lingering drought in the valley has stressed the ranch’s landscapes.

“We should be working on a co-management plan that protects those resources. There are so many things we should be dealing with instead of going back to court,” she said. “When we met with him briefly this year … I asked him why would you purchase this property with the history and the cloud on the title. He looked me in the eye and said he needed a place to play.

“Well, this is our livelihood,” she said. “We want to work together with him so we can restore the resources on that mountain. What’s good for us is good for him.”

This story first appeared in The Colorado Sun’s newsletter, The Sunriser. You can subscribe here:

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy.