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)

It took a ruling this month from District Court Judge Crista Newmyer-Olsen to halt construction of a perimeter fence around Cielo Vista Ranch in the Culebra section of the Sangre de Cristos near the town of San Luis. 

Billionaire owner William Harrison had been disregarding a moratorium issued by Costilla County commissioners on the fence construction. The moratorium came after Harrison entered into a settlement agreement, signed by his vice president William T. White, with Costilla County to follow the county’s permitting process before continuing with construction. 

He didn’t stop the fence construction and now the district court has stepped in with an injunction until Newmyer-Olsen can hear from both parties.

This lawsuit stems from the ranch’s construction of “thousands of feet” of an 8-foot-tall fence in sections of the property. 

“CVR (Cielo Vista Ranch) did not comply with the moratorium and has continued to erect the fence. Thousands of feet of fence have been constructed since Sept. 7, 2023,” Newmyer-Olsen wrote in her ruling. 

Jamie Cotter, an attorney for the owner of the ranch, also known as La Sierra, told Alamosa Citizen via email that “We are not authorized to speak about this matter because litigation is pending.”

Harrison, a scion to one of Texas’s largest oil fortunes, acquired the 83,000-acre Cielo Vista Ranch in 2017, shortly after it was listed for $105 million. The property includes the 14,047-foot Culebra Peak and 18 13,000-foot peaks along the jagged Sangre de Cristo range. 

The property is at the center of Colorado’s most storied range war. The longest-running civil litigation in the state involves historical access to homesteaders of the San Luis Valley dating back to before Colorado was a state. 

The owners before Harrison had spent decades fighting locals who secured access to the property through a historic land grant and wanted to use the land for grazing and collecting firewood. A 2002 Colorado Supreme Court decision launched a 15-year process to identify and certify access to about 6,400 parcels of land for nearly 5,000 descendants of Spanish and Mexican homesteaders who colonized the San Luis Valley.

Harrison challenged the 2002 decision after the certification process was completed. He argued that locals had used machinery to build access roads on his property and he closed 19 village access gates. In his appeal, he said several miles of fence had been removed and his managers had caught ATV riders and anglers trespassing on the ranch. 

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)

The Colorado Court of Appeals in 2018 denied Harrison’s appeal of the implementation of the 2002 ruling. Harrison began negotiations with locals about restoring historic access in 2019 and a Costilla County District judge in 2021 ruled that Harrison could not restrict access to residents with historic rights and ordered the locals and ranch owner to figure out an access plan. 

Jack Taylor, a lumber baron who acquired the ranch in 1960, spent decades building a fence around the property. Locals sued Taylor in 1981, saying the fence prohibited their historic access, sparking what would become Colorado’s longest-running lawsuit.

A moratorium on fences in Costilla County

Costilla County currently has a moratorium on fences higher than 5 feet, which the ranch’s counsel has said is “moot.” The moratorium expires on March 5, 2024, unless Costilla County renews it. 

Newmyer-Olsen issued an analysis and order granting Costilla County’s motion for a preliminary injunction. The preliminary injunction has been granted before any kind of trial to preserve the status quo — making sure the land rights holders and wildlife have continued and unabated access, as was granted to them in the Sangre De Cristo Land Grant — to the nearly 80,000 acre ranch. In her analysis, Newmyer-Olsen declared that the moratorium is not moot and must be followed by the ranch. 

Due to the issuing of the preliminary injunction, a petition is currently being circulated. The petition not only calls on the county commissioners to continue to fight the fence, but calls on help from members of government organizations from around the state, including Gov. Jared Polis, state Sen. Cleave Simpson, state Rep. Matt Martinez, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, and members of U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.  

The fence construction also violates a settlement agreement that was signed by Costilla County and Cielo Vista Ranch on Nov. 1, 2022. This agreement was drafted and put in place after the ranch began constructing an 8-foot fence near an area known as the Morada in late 2021. After the settlement agreement was signed, construction began on a new fence in an area known as El Pozo – a meadow on the northeast boundary of the ranch. 

There is concern for the ecosystem in this area because large machinery has been moved in and out to construct the fence. According to court documents, Cielo Vista Ranch waits for a period of time to see if the area revegetates naturally; if it doesn’t, they seed it. However, these practices remain unclear. 

A special meeting was held on Sept. 7 to address the fence issue with members of the public testifying to the county commissioners. Members of the public raised their concerns for wildlife migration of both small and large game, erosion caused by road grading and movement of heavy equipment, as well their fears for what implications the fence has on their access rights.

As a result of this meeting, the moratorium was issued and adopted through a county resolution. On Oct. 9, amendments to the Costilla County Land Use code were made by the planning commission. 

Two court hearings were held, on Oct. 9 and Oct. 12. During these hearings, evidence and arguments were made by Costilla County representatives as well as Cielo Vista Ranch counsel. Ranch counsel stated that they submitted applications that are required by the newly adopted rules. 

In Newmyer-Olsen’s analysis, she presents a series of issues that were raised, without the help of expert testimony, such as erosion in the Morada and geohydrology in the Pozo, and how the fence may affect wildlife. Expert testimony isn’t needed at preliminary hearings such as these, but she concluded that “common sense” still dictates that “erection of a high fence within a wildlife habitat will affect the wildlife therein.” 

She also wrote that testimony of observed erosion was “largely uncontested.” 

Tall fences necessary to keep bison in, trespassers out

Carlos DeLeon, the ranch manager, told the court the reason for the fences is to keep the ranch’s bison within its boundaries and to keep trespassers out. He agreed that elk and deer cannot easily get over the high fence and told the court that the ranch would construct deer jumps, which are at “DeLeon’s discretion based upon his observations” of where elk and deer travel the most. However, he also said that deer jumps won’t be installed until after the fence is finished. 

There was no testimony from the ranch representatives on their plans for the fence, how much they plan to install, when it will be finished, or a timeline for any deer jump installation. “There was certainly no testimony that fence construction had ceased,” Newmyer-Olsen wrote. She wrote that the evidence the court heard indicated that construction was “ongoing” and two separate crews had been working on the fence since the date “the moratorium [was] issued.” 

Newmyer-Olsen was asked to force the ranch to remediate the fence that was constructed up until that point, but she declined to do so. Her order stops the ranch and any of its representatives or contractors from violating the moratorium during “the pendency of this lawsuit.” 

However, despite her lack of a remediation order, she alluded to the county’s policing power and legal authority to enforce land use violations. 

Ben Doon, Costilla County’s chief administrative officer, spoke with Alamosa Citizen over the phone on Tuesday about the moratorium and settlement agreement. 

He said the county is in the process of lifting the moratorium with the newly adopted land use regulations, but public hearings and more legal notices are required before that can happen. 

“They’ve been doing this for a while,” he said, when asked how the ranch was able to construct so much fence. Construction began in earnest in late 2021, and at first “they weren’t getting any permits.” Doon said the county had to “kind of struggle” with the ranch to get construction and road grading permits from them. 

Then in the summer of 2022, the county commissioners began hearing complaints from residents. At that time, the commissioners drafted the settlement agreement. Doon said the ranch agreed and said they would comply with concerns. 

As time went on, Doon said, the fence construction continued, and continued to be “more and more in people’s backyards.” 

Parts of the Cielo Vista Ranch border unincorporated land and is in fairly remote mountain terrain. However, much of that boundary is right up against private residences. “More recently, the fences have been built right in the backyard” of people’s properties, he said. 

Doon said after new “rounds of scrutiny” the ranch did get permits and was complying, but when it came to changing construction techniques, it was “the same old business as usual.” 

The fence’s height is one issue, but the holes in the fence are another issue. Toward the bottom of the fence openings are less than 4 inches, meaning most small animals are unable to come and go. 

Doon said that members of the public began bringing photos of erosion to the county commissioners, which resulted in the moratorium. 

After the moratorium was passed, Doon said, the ranch basically “thumbed their nose” at the moratorium. That’s when the Costilla County attorney filed a motion for a preliminary injunction. 

Would Costilla County continue to sue the ranch to stop progress on the fence, if it came to that? 

“That seems to be the only way CVR will listen,” Doon said. “They won’t listen when the county does something, but if the court tells them they have to. The reality is, we have limited resources. We cannot spend, spend, spend on attorneys like the owner of the Cielo Vista Ranch can.”

Colorado Sun staff writer Jason Blevins contributed to this story written by the Alamosa Citizen, a member-supported newsroom covering the San Luis Valley of Colorado. The story was published Oct. 26, 2023.

Owen Woods is a reporter and photo journalist for the Alamosa Citizen, a member-suported newsroom covering the San Luis Valley