Ranch access upheld - High court refuses to revisit fight over San Luis Valley tract

By Deborah Frazier, Rocky Mountain News
December 10, 2003

The descendants of the 1840s San Luis Valley settlers have won a 40-year legal struggle to graze cattle and gather firewood on the 77,500-acre Taylor Ranch.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an appeal of a Colorado Supreme Court ruling last year that returned access rights to residents of Costilla County, one of the state's poorest counties.

"Right on," said Ray Maestas, who lives next to the ranch that includes headwaters of the Rio Grande, 14,047-foot Culebra Peak, one of the state's largest privately owned forests and a premier wildlife habitat.

The tract is part of an 1843 Mexican land grant that was settled by Spanish and Indian farmers and ranchers who had the right to graze, gather firewood, hunt, fish and hold family celebrations on the land.

The United States acquired the land in 1848, but the settlers' descendants retained the access rights.

Jack Taylor, a wealthy logging entrepreneur from North Carolina, bought the ranch in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in 1960 and barred the descendants from entering.

Many of the descendants, who relied on the wood for heating and home building, as well as hunting and grazing to support their families, were forced to move away.

"We're disappointed," Al Wolf, Taylor's attorney, said of the high court's decision. He declined further comment.

The 2002 Colorado Supreme Court ruling restored the wood gathering and grazing rights, but not the fishing, hunting or recreational access. During the appeal, the ranch remained locked to the descendants.

"This decision is going to make a huge difference in terms of pride and sense of community," said attorney Jeff Goldstein, who represented San Luis Valley residents.

"To have your rights vindicated after 40 years of being denied access is a tremendous victory in itself," said Goldstein.

Neither he nor the other attorneys for the residents charged fees. The American Civil Liberties Union, the National Lawyers Guild, the Colorado Lawyers Committee and private firms volunteered time and work.

"It means a lot because we have been waiting a long time," said Maestas. "For the younger generation, it will mean some will be able to stay and make a living."

Because of Taylor's closing of the ranch, Maestas left his father on the family's small spread. He worked in Denver and Colorado Springs and returned only when his father died to care for the remaining 50 cattle.

"It will mean so much to me to be able to do some of the things we used to do and not have to beg for wood," he said.

Jack Taylor died in 1988 after years of exchanging insults and gunshots with the descendants. He pistol-whipped several men and he himself was shot in the foot.

In the late 1990s, Taylor's family sold the ranch - with the access suit unsettled - to Lou Pai, a former Enron executive who had cashed out more than $300 million in stock before Enron collapsed.

Pai and his attorneys were not available for comment. They and Taylor's attorney will have to work out the settlement with the descendants.

The state had offered to buy the ranch, but Pai paid more than $20 million for the property. It was sold off in parcels to several Pai interests, including his sister.

The price Pai paid was subject to adjustment depending on the outcome of the descendants' lawsuit. The Colorado Supreme Court, recognizing the descendants' poverty compared with Pai and Taylor, ordered the landowners to pay the costs for title searches to prove access rights, Goldstein said.

"That's important because it's a poor community and a lot of the people wouldn't have the money to prove they have the rights," said Goldstein. "We hope Mr. Pai and his attorneys will resolve the issues so we don't have to spend more time and money."

By late Tuesday, most of the estimated 1,000 descendants hadn't heard that the case was sent back to the local district court to handle.

"We were always confident that the appeal would be denied by the U.S. Supreme Court," said Maria Valdez, whose father was among those denied access to the ranch. "But we are still relieved."

Awarding access, setting up a management plan that protects the resources and other details could take a year, she said. But in a few years, the community will experience a renaissance, Valdez predicted.

"It's karma," she said, recalling that Taylor's attorneys shouted "We beat you," after the local court denied access. "I want those attorneys to know that Maria Valdez is laughing at them tonight."


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