Treasure of La Sierra

Colorado's embattled Taylor Ranch is the West writ small. Here's how capitalism may conserve it.

One night in 1975, a hail of lead tore through Jack Taylor's home on his ranch on the Rio Culebra, near the town of San Luis, just north of the Colorado-New Mexico border. One bullet shattered his ankle. Years later, arsonists set fire to his house; only a scorched chimney remains today. More recently, protestors chained themselves to the Taylor Ranch's gates and proclaimed a new war against logging on private land. And earlier this year, Costilla County unsuccessfully attempted to enjoin Jack's son Zack from logging even one more tree.

For a generation, the Taylor Ranch has been embroiled in what The New York Times calls "the hottest environmental dispute in the Rockies." It is a war for the ranch's resources, a battle between outsiders from North Carolina and a long-established Hispanic community. The stakes are high: herds of elk and bighorn sheep, millions of board-feet of spruce and fir, and enough water to irrigate hundreds of square miles.

This isn't the only struggle over natural resources in the West. But the Taylor Ranch is different: It's privately owned. While nearby federal lands become the battlegrounds of intense wars over a shrinking resource pie, the Taylors' innovative ranch is trying to use property rights to make the resource pie bigger. If it succeeds, its owners will be wealthier, its wildlife will be enriched, and its San Luis neighbors will enjoy a windfall in forage, wood, elk, and water.

Taylor Ranch is the West writ small. It is a story about a beautiful landscape: 77,500 acres of rampart-like alpine peaks, fields awash in a rainbow of flowered colors, fingers of spruce-fir forests inching into slopes of yellow and orange quaking aspen, and a lower fringe dressed in pine and sagebrush. It's a tale made for re-thinking the role of property in conservation, set in a Lockean landscape where rights are up for grabs. It turns on a partial truth that Calvin Trillin stumbled on in an unfriendly New Yorker piece he wrote about Taylor in 1976: A man sometimes owns only the land his neighbors acknowledge he owns.

The story stretches back to 1843. Before then, the San Luis Valley was home only to Indian tribes that constantly fought among themselves. The valley was then part of Mexico, and this continual conflict suited Mexican interests: It created a buffer zone between that country and the region's other imperial aspirants. But in the 1840s, the Texans were getting belligerent, and the Mexicans were getting nervous. To protect its northern fringe, Mexico encouraged settlers to move from its northernmost outpost--today's Taos, New Mexico--into the upper reaches of the vast valley.

Charles Beaubien was a Frenchman and former fur trapper who became a Mexican citizen and, in 1843, landlord of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant, over a million acres of unsurveyed land. The grant had a proviso: Mexican law required it to be settled within two years. With Beaubien's blessing, a few desperate pioneers started the fortified town of San Luis de Culebra--and quickly abandoned it in the face of Indian attacks. The grant thus remained unoccupied, casting the first of many clouds on its title.

War reversed Beaubien's fortunes. The United States annexed Texas in 1845 and declared war on Mexico in 1846. In 1848, Mexico accepted the lower Rio Grande as its boundary. The United States took over Mexico's northern provinces; in return, Mexico received $15 million and was relieved of all claims against it by American citizens. The United States also agreed to honor Mexican citizens' claims.

Against this background, the ever-opportunistic Beaubien became an American citizen. With the U.S. Army available to maintain order, he reestablished San Luis in 1851; with Fort Massachusetts at the grant's northern end, the settlement became permanent. Overnight, a market appeared for San Luis' farmers and hunters, the fort got the food it needed to survive, and a viable village was born. Hungry for a piece of the new market, each Hispanic family in San Luis obtained title from Beaubien to a small tract of irrigable land along the Rio Culebra. As part of the deal, they assumed they had the customary communal right to graze their herds, hunt, and cut wood in the ejido, the nearby hills and mountains of the Rio Culebra watershed--an area that their descendants would argue included the future Taylor Ranch.

In 1861, President Lincoln appointed William Gilpin as Colorado's first territorial governor. Gilpin bought Beaubien's widow's share of the grant, promising to honor title to the irrigated parcels given earlier to the settlers at San Luis. Throughout the Civil War, Gilpin sold chunks of the ejido to investors betting on a Union victory. He then split what remained of the grant at the watershed boundary of the Rio Culebra, calling the northern part (the part that lay outside the watershed) Trinchera. The southern part went by the local name La Sierra--"the mountain tract."

Gilpin tried to sell La Sierra, but met staunch resistance from San Luisans long dependent on free use of its land and resources. Buyers were reluctant to invest in land whose title was colored by community claims to its forage, water, wildlife, and wood. That title would remain clouded for the next century. Trinchera was different: It had no history of communal rights. It sold to a series of buyers, and in 1969 was purchased by Malcolm Forbes.

By that time, Jack Taylor--former Golden Gloves champion, WWII fighter pilot, and self-taught real estate entrepreneur--had come to Colorado. Accustomed to seeking valuable land with clouded titles, Taylor set his sights on La Sierra's timber and hunting potential. A group of Denver businessmen sold it to him in 1960 for $500,000, or about $7 an acre. But there was a catch. The deed specified that the lands of La Sierra were "also subject to claims of the local people by prescription or otherwise to rights to pasturage, wood, and lumber and so-called settlement rights in, to, and upon said land."

The common-use rights laid out in the deed were remnants of Spanish and Mexican law, largely at odds with Anglo-Saxon traditions. More important, they were at odds with Jack Taylor's plans for the land. He went to federal court, where in 1965 he won clear title to the place he renamed the Taylor Ranch. But the controversy was just beginning. The civil rights movement had arrived, and cries of Brown Power! echoed through the Southwest. Across the region, Hispanics were laying claim to land they felt was theirs. In 1981, a San Luis organization, the Land Rights Council, sued to regain what it regarded as San Luisans' traditional rights to La Sierra. The lawsuit, Rael v. Taylor, sought the outright cession of the ranch to the plaintiffs, who claimed to be heirs of the settlers of 1851.

Taylor's legal success was not matched by any talent for public relations. When he first arrived, he fenced his property, barricaded the roads, armed himself and his employees, and beat trespassers and arsonists before hauling them into the Costilla County court. There he found himself booked on assault and kidnapping charges. He was convicted of minor assault and fined; the men he wanted charged went free. After his brush with assassination in 1975, he rarely returned to his ranch, where significant timber harvest and private big-game hunting took place, along with chronic poaching and trespass. He died intestate in 1988.

His son and executor Zachary immediately put the ranch on the market, in part to cover a loan to pay the crushing estate taxes. To enhance the ranch's marketability, Zack adopted a more conciliatory attitude toward traditional local uses of the land, leasing it for local grazing and eventually opening it to free community fishing, hunting, picnicking, and firewood collection. Unfortunately, the poaching and trespassing continued.

Even more damaging, his legal bills mounted, as Rael v. Taylor seesawed between state and federal courts. The plaintiffs attracted pro bono lawyers out of Denver, while the ACLU, the International Center for Human Rights Litigation, and a score of others filed amicus briefs, hoping to strike a blow for insurgent Hispanics and against resurgent capitalists.

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