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The 38-year war over access to a San Luis Valley ranch, called Cielo Vista, could be nearing its end

“This is a unique opportunity in time to begin a new direction,” said William Harrison, the owner of Cielo Vista Ranch says, promising to work with locals to better define their historic right to access his land

The 14,053-foot Culebra Peak is inside the Cielo Vista Ranch in Colorado's San Luis Valley. Ranch owner William Harrison has allowed peak baggers to summit the mountain, even as he fought in court to restrict the way that descendants of the people who settled the area before Colorado was a state access the land. On Dec. 18, 2018, Harrison said he was dropping his legal fight. (Photo provided by Mirr Ranch Group)
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The longest running civil litigation in Colorado could be ending as the owner of an historic San Luis Valley ranch has promised to end his legal battle to limit access to his property by the heirs to an 1844 land grant.

William Harrison, who acquired the 83,000-acre Cielo Vista Ranch in 2017 after it was listed for $105 million, on Tuesday issued a statement that he would not pursue an appeal over the access issue to the Colorado Supreme Court.

“My hope is to move away from litigation and into discussions on how we can live

together with a common goal to preserve this precious land for generations to come,” Harrison,  the scion to one of Texas’ large oil fortunes, said in the statement.

Last month the Colorado Court of Appeals denied Harrison’s appeal of the implementation of a 2002 Supreme Court decision, the second high-court decision in the decades-long range war,  that restored historical access to descendants of homesteaders who used the sprawling ranch for grazing and harvesting timber and firewood.

MORE: New owner fighting to restrict access to private Cielo Vista Ranch by 5,000 descendants of the San Luis Valley’s earliest settlers

Like three previous owners, Harrison argued that too many San Luis Valley residents were entering the ranch under the 155-year-old Mexican land grant and that some were were damaging the property, which includes the 14,047-foot Culebra Peak and 18 13,000-foot peaks spanning 20 miles of the toothy Sangre de Cristo ridgeline.

Shortly after he purchased the property, a 15-year process of identifying the descendants of people who settled the valley before Colorado was a state concluded that about 5,000 people had legal access to about 6,400 parcels of land on the ranch they call La Sierra.

The appeals court rejected Harrison’s argument.

“Nor are we persuaded by ranch owner’s contention that the sheer number of parcels and landowners granted access rights was sufficient to conclude that the ranch was subject to an unreasonable increase in burden,” the court said in a 96-page ruling.

Harrison’s statement said he would begin restoring gates that provided historic access to  residents living adjacent to the ranch. His ranch managers locked those gates in 2017.

Last week Harrison reached out to residents to discuss a meeting and begin negotiations that could open access and prevent further legal action. The San Luis Land Rights Council, which represents nine San Luis Valley residents who have had historic access to the ranch on Sunday unanimously agreed to meet with Harrison and his legal team.

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)

“I’m surprised this is happening so fast,” said Shirley Romero-Otero, 63, the president of the San Luis Land Rights Council that formed in the late 1970s to prevent the ranch’s previous owner, Jack Taylor, from denying access.

If the council and Harrison reach a deal for access, the 38-year range war will come to a close. Romer-Otero was 20 when she started researching original homesteaders of the 1844 land grant from Mexico.

“Can you believe that? All my adult life I’ve been right for our rights to La Sierra,” she said.

She’s eager to start talking about a management plan that can better protect the ranch’s resources that have been impacted by years drought and climate change. Proper management of the resources, based in science, not legal battles, is the next chapter, she said.

“We hopefully can have good dialogue and move forward with the bottom line being the resources and watersheds on the mountain are kept in good condition,” she said. “What’s good for him is good for us, and what’s good for us is good for him. I applaud Mr. Harrison for reaching out with an olive branch. This is not something we never had with previous owners.”

Harrison said there may be issues on which he and local residents may not agree, but as they talk, “let’s begin to better define the legitimate use of the property so we can heal our rifts.”

“This is a unique opportunity in time to begin a new direction,” Harrison said.


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