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San Luis residents get back their grazing rights

Article by Kay Matthews

Land Grants – September 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

The people of the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado had much to celebrate at the July Fiestas de Santa Ana y Santiago: It took 21 years, but they finally won their fight to retain grazing, firewood gathering, and timber harvesting rights on the 79,500-acre Taylor Ranch. On June 24th the Colorado Supreme Court issued a decision granting the landowners, who are the successors in title to the original settlers of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant, access and use rights on former grant lands now under private ownership.

This decision overturns previous court and court of appeal decisions that denied the landowners these rights. According to Denver lawyer Jeff Goldstein, who worked on the case along with many other lawyers, this victory is the “foremost property case of its type to be decided in 50 years” and may well have application all over the world in indigenous land claims.

What it means for the people of the San Luis Valley, which could include 1,000 families, is that they now have the opportunity to once again work collectively on the land for the common good. That, of course, was the intent of the original settling of the Sangre de Cristo grant. In 1844 the governor of territorial New Mexico deeded the original one million-acre grant to two Mexican nationals, who died during the Mexican-American War. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo honored both Spanish and Mexican land grants.

The Sangre de Cristo grant ended up in the hands of Carlos Beaubien, and in the 1850s, Beaubien recruited farm families to settle the Colorado portion of the grant (it extended into northern New Mexico).Varas, or arable strips of land, were allotted to families for farming, and common lands were provided for hunting, wood gathering, grazing, recreation, and timbering.

In 1863, Beaubien wrote what came to be called the Beaubien Document, which was critical to the findings of this case. In this document Beaubien granted the settlers access rights to the commons land as well as issuing deeds to their farmland. Beaubien died a year later, but the new owner, William Gilpin, Colorado’s first territorial governor, continued to provide deeds to settlers and recognized the use rights stipulated in the Beaubien Document.

The settlers and their descendants continued to exercise their access rights until 1960 when the ranch was bought by Jack Taylor, a North Carolina lumberman, whose deed said that the lands were subject to “claims of the local people by prescription or otherwise to right to pasture, wood, and lumber and so-called settlement rights in, to, and upon said land.”

However, Taylor began to deny access and built fences to keep people out. He filed what is called a Torrens title action, a Colorado statutory title procedure designed to disenfranchise aboriginal rights, and the Colorado courts upheld this action denying the local landowners access rights.

The current case began in 1981 when a group of local landowners filed suit in Costilla County District Court asserting their settlement rights to graze livestock, gather firewood, and timber, hunt, fish, and recreate. They argued that their settlement rights stem from three sources: Mexican law, prescription, and an expressed or implied grant from Beaubien. In 1986 that court found in favor of the defendant, and in 1991 the court of appeals affirmed this decision (for further information regarding these decisions go to

But finally, on June 24, 2002, the Colorado Supreme Court decided in favor of the plaintiffs. The Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts that because the grant was settled after the Mexican-American War, the terms of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo did not apply under Mexican law. But the court recognized that the Beaubien Document, supported by Gilpin’s agreement and other evidence, guaranteed a prescriptive easement to the landowners. Noting that Beaubien wrote this document to honor his commitment to settlers whom he had persuaded to move hundreds of miles to make homes in a wilderness, the court declared: “It would be the height of arrogance and nothing but a legal fiction for us to claim that we can interpret this document without putting it in its historical context.”

One last legal hurdle remains: a ruling on a brief submitted July 15 that asks the court to recognize the class of people initially identified in the lawsuit as having use rights, which includes families of the traditional villages of the Culebra River drainage originally under the common ownership of Beaubien. A previous trial court ruling had limited the names to seven landowners identified by Taylor in the abstract title to his land. Goldstein has asked the court to expedite a ruling on this issue.

Goldstein emphasizes that these recognized prescriptive rights are easement rights, not ownership rights, and that now his clients and local landowners can come together to form an organization to establish equitable use, a monitoring program, and mediation procedures. “I am so relieved to be talking about how the landowners are going to be using the land rather than if they will ever use the land.”

During the fiestas celebration the folks in San Luis brainstormed with the lawyers about what their next steps should be in determining management policy and negotiating with the current Taylor Ranch owner Lou Pai. As Maria Mondragon Valdez, a longtime activist involved in the suit and wife of one of the plaintiffs, says, “The devil is in the details and we have our work cut out for us figuring out how to make 19th century traditional use rights fit 21st century reality.”

Valdez explained that it may be difficult to exercise timber harvesting rights on lands that under Taylor’s ownership were extensively logged by corporate companies “who tore apart the landscape.”

The nature of the community has also changed since Taylor acquired the ranch and closed down access. According to Valdez, some of the area ranchers had to leave because of a lack of grazing lands and access to timber resources, and many of the newer landowners would rather use the ranch for hunting, fishing, and recreation, rights that were not included in the decision.

Ironically, one of the Supreme Court justices wrote a dissenting opinion arguing that the Beaubien Document substantiates that the settlers use rights included access for fishing, hunting, and recreation, and that the court decision should have recognized these rights as well. He cited reports of Michael Meyer, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona and Marianne Stoller, professor of anthropology at Colorado College, that recognized that hunting, fishing, and recreation, along with grazing, firewood gathering, and timber cutting, are all included in the use of common lands. Goldstein says it is unlikely his clients will choose to appeal the decision to include these additional rights.

Negotiating with current owner Lou Pai isn’t going to be easy, either. Pai, who bought the ranch several years ago under the guise of three limited-liability corporations, is a former Enron Corporation executive who sold his company shares between 1999 and 2001 for $353 million before the stock collapsed. Although he is not currently being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission, he is named in dozens of shareholder lawsuits.

Since Pai bought the ranch — now officially called Jaroso Creek Ranch and Culebra Ranch — he has beefed up security and vigorously pursued trespassing complaints. At a demonstration last spring, local community activists expressed concern over his effort to acquire more land and water rights and the fact that Pai is connected to such high-powered corporations like Enron.

Valdez concurs: “Pai represents a globalization movement, not the good old boy network that Taylor represented.”

Pai has employed some local people to restore portions of the degraded timber lands on the ranch, and Valdez and Goldstein remain optimistic that the people of the valley will succeed in their efforts to develop a plan to exercise their use rights. They both look forward to discussions and possible collaboration with northern New Mexico land grant heirs whose ancestors have managed their common lands for hundreds of years, and with community organizers who have been involved in management issues with public lands agencies. They see opportunities for setting up nonprofit community development corporations that could establish woodlots and grazing associations to benefit the local community.

But for now they want to savor this victory that is the result of a hard fought battle — a battle that both drained and empowered a community: “We don’t want any outside consultants, academics, or especially Lou Pai determining our future. We can do it ourselves,” says Valdez.

Kay Matthews is editor of La Jicarita News, where this was published in the August 2002 edition. It is a monthly newspaper published with the Rio Pueblo/Rio Embudo Watershed Protection Coalition, which is “dedicated to protecting and enhancing the clean and plentiful waters that sustain the rural communities, culture, and traditions of Northern New Mexico.” Subscriptions are $5 a year to La Jicarita News, Box 6 El Valle Route, Chamisal NM 87521.