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The Baca Ranch — a legacy from Mexico

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

Sand Dunes – February 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

AS PRESENTED in recent meetings, changing Great Sand Dunes from National Monument to National Park is more than a name change. It would also mean adding land — some of it from the Forest Service, and as much as 100,000 acres now in private hands: the Baca Ranch.

The Baca Ranch is a legacy of the Spanish policy of issuing land grants to encourage settlement in the remote zones of the empire in the New World. Mexico gained independence in 1821, and continued the process.

In 1823, the Mexican government granted to Luis Maria Baca a huge parcel of land near Las Vegas, N.M. The United States acquired the territory with the Mexican War of 1846. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which settled the Mexican War in 1848, the United States promised to honor all Mexican land grants.

But before the surveyors could set the Baca grant’s formal boundaries, squatters and homesteaders had sprouted. Rather than go through the hassle of evicting them in 1860, Congress offered Baca’s heirs a deal — they could select five 100,000-acre grants elsewhere in the public domain.

The northernmost of these grants, which sits just south of Crestone, is the Baca Ranch, or more formally, Luis Maria Baca Grant No. 4. It comprises a variety of terrain, from sand dunes to hay meadows to forests to the summit of 14,165-foot Kit Carson Mountain.

Over the years, the Baca Ranch has seen many owners. Among the earliest was William Gilpin, first territorial governor of Colorado, who bought it from the Baca heirs in 1862 for $30,000 — 30¢ an acre.

Gilpin had trouble making payments, so it went to the Baca heirs’ lawyer, John S. Watts of Santa Fé, who in turn sold it to some investors headed by Alexander Cameron Hunt.

Hunt, like Gilpin, was a former territorial governor who went into land speculation. Unlike Gilpin, he had close ties to the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad and its land-development subsidiary, the Central Colorado Improvement Co.

Hunt is the man who changed the name of a railroad junction from “South Arkansas” to “Salida,” and Salida’s Hunt Street is named for him.

Hunt’s group leased the Baca Grant to a company that tolerated squatters; they established a settlement named Cottonwood, and dug ditches to divert Cotton Creek to their fields.

In 1877, Gilpin bought it back from Hunt’s investors, and soon gold was discovered. That enabled him to sell it for $350,000 in 1886 to George Adams — who evicted the miners. What followed were years of discoveries and disputes.

After mining faded, the Baca Grant became a cattle ranch; among its most notable owners was Alfred Collins, who raised prize Herefords there in the 1950s. In the early 1950s, about 9,000 acres of the Baca Grant was subdivided into the hundreds of lots that form the Baca Grande subdivision south of Crestone.

The Baca Ranch eventually became property of the Arizona Land & Cattle Co., which was controlled by Maurice Strong, a Canadian oilman. Strong and his wife, Hannah, encouraged the development of religious centers near Crestone, and Strong was also a principal in American Water Development, Inc.

A decade ago, AWDI proposed to tap the deep confined aquifer of the Closed Basin and export the water to the Front Range of Colorado. AWDI was opposed — and defeated in water court — by almost everybody in the San Luis Valley.

After the dust settled in the early 1990s, the Baca Ranch might have been sold in pieces to pay AWDI’s legal bills, but that didn’t happen.

ENTER GARY BOYCE, who grew up in the San Luis Valley, went off to seek his fortune, and returned with either a fortune or a world-class credit rating.

Boyce is the managing partner for the Cabeza de Baca, an enterprise whose investors include Farallon Capital Management of San Francisco. Re-assembling the Baca reportedly cost about $15 million, a number that Boyce does not dispute.

In 1996, Boyce unveiled a proposal. He called it the “No Dam Water Project,” while others referred to it as “son of AWDI” or “AWDII.” Like AWDI, it involved pumping and exporting water from the confined aquifer; unlike AWDI, it offered augmentation water if nearby wells went dry, as well as conservation easements on the Baca Ranch.

Even so, Boyce would have lost to potato blight in a Valley popularity contest. The opposition is strong, and he has yet to file for the rights to develop the water — 150,000 acre-feet at $5,000 an acre-foot.

What does Boyce say when you ask him if it’s true that the Baca Ranch will be sold to the Nature Conservancy for $35 million?

Like everyone else in this part of the world, Boyce has heard that talk. It’s entirely possible that someone from the Nature Conservancy has talked to someone from Farallon, he said. “But the way our contracts are structured, with me as the managing partner, it can’t be sold without my consent.”

Pay $15 million, sell for $35 million five years later — that’s a decent 18% annual return.

“It’s not going to happen,” Boyce said. “The Baca isn’t for sale.”

And why should it be? What’s $35 million compared to the $750 million that the water might bring if Boyce can find a way to satisfy a water court in a state whose constitution guarantees the right to develop water?

For that matter, the surface water rights on the Baca — at least 25,000 acre-feet whose diversion would be nearly impossible to prevent under current Colorado water law — could be worth $150 million. That, too, is a lot more than the $35 million that the Nature Conservancy is supposedly ready to pay.

Now, it is not unknown in the annals of American commerce for an owner to be adamantly opposed to selling — until the offer gets sweeter. So it would be naïve, perhaps, to presume that the Baca won’t change hands until Boyce’s will is probated.

At some point the offered price might be irresistible, and it would be foolish for Boyce to sound eager to sell when it’s in his interest to get the best price for the property.

SO FOR PURPOSES of speculation, let us assume that the Baca is sold in the near future, at whatever price, to the Nature Conservancy. The southwestern portion of the Baca is sand dunes, just like those in the adjacent national monument, and around the dunes, there are sand fields. Along the mountain front, there are meadows, pastures and hayfields. Above that, trees and mountains.

What would the Nature Conservancy do with it? One logical division would be to give the sand to the Park Service, the trees and mountains to the Forest Service, and operate a ranch on the rest.

The Nature Conservancy already owns and operates the Zapata Ranch on the south side of the dunes, “and so that is a possibility,” according to Becky Johnson, Colorado media relations coördinator for the Conservancy.

However, “I don’t really know what management plan would be adopted, or how the land might be divided.” It is possible, she said, that the entire Baca could go to the Park Service, or that the ranch might be in Nature Conservancy hands for some years after a sale — she said she wanted to make it clear that “we pay property taxes.”

So Boyce says the Baca isn’t for sale, and the putative buyer doesn’t know what it would do with the property. This doesn’t quite sound like a done deal.

— E.Q.