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.

While Taylor duked it out in court in the 1970s and '80s, his neighbor Forbes found a novel way to harness property rights to conservation and improve community relations in the process. You can still find old-timers in Costilla County who speak fondly of Forbes; some of Taylor's fiercest opponents wear baseball caps that proclaim, "Forbes: Capitalist Tool." Forbes' way of dealing with community problems was to hire locals at top wages and integrate them into the operation of an increasingly successful trophy-hunting ranch. That, in turn, was built on Colorado's Ranching for Wildlife program, an innovation established by Forbes and his ranch managers–the remarkable father-son team of Errol and Ty Ryland–in 1986.

Until that year, the 150,000-acre Trinchera Ranch was in decline. Cattle weren't paying the bills; the only realistic option, it seemed, was to subdivide the land into ranchettes. Nothing could match the glitter and gold of real estate sales–nothing, that is, until the Rylands gave their boss a money-making idea. Already committed to phase one of Trinchera's subdivision, Forbes put a proposition before Colorado's game commission: He would stop all subdivision on Trinchera for his fair share of the licenses the state issued for hunting free-ranging elk. The game commission said yes, but with one condition: Forbes would have to give public hunters rights of access to his private lands during the general hunting season.

In a state where the government had always owned the wildlife and where game ranching for private purposes had been strictly forbidden, the agreement was revolutionary. The plan, soon adopted by more than 30 of Colorado's largest ranches, created a contingent private property right in trophy big-game licenses. Participating landowners were given (with their input) a biologically sustainable number of big game hunting licenses. In exchange, they managed ranchlands for wildlife, not just livestock, and shared a stick out of their bundle of property rights with the hunting public.

Ranching for Wildlife is what keeps Trinchera intact today, just as it keeps intact similar ranches. It also gives landowners an incentive for good stewardship: The number of big game licenses landowners receive is commensurate with the number of acres and the ecological quality of their land.

The price is opening private land to limited hunting by the general public during the regular hunting season. In the case of elk, the state conducts a public lottery for 10 percent of the bull licenses, with special breaks for local hunters in certain areas. For the price of a $35 hunting license, ordinary people get a shot at the same trophy bulls that ranch clients are paying up to 250 times more to shoot.

Nonetheless, the private licenses are valuable. Prior to Ranching for Wildlife, private ranches hosted hunts, but not for the big dollars they now earn. Before, they could charge prospective hunters fees to hunt on private land, but they couldn't provide them with hunting seasons separate from that of the general public, extended hunting seasons to suit their schedules, or hunts at more optimal times when bagging a trophy animal might be more likely. Also, landowners didn't control the number and allocation of the licenses that would authorize hunters to hunt their lands. This weakened their bargaining position. All that made it too risky and unprofitable for landowners to develop recreational amenities like those at Trinchera, which commands about $8,000 per elk hunt and $50,000 per bighorn sheep hunt.

Under the new system, elk, cougars, bears, pronghorn, and bighorn sheep are no longer just pests that prey on cattle or eat the grass cows need. They are assets, earning landowners double or triple the dollar return on cattle. This has made wildlands, not subdivisions, the most attractive proposition in many parts of Colorado.

Indeed, Ranching for Wildlife has given ranchers incentives to reintroduce wild species to their lands. Before the program, there were no bighorn sheep in the Sangre de Cristos. Under the policy umbrella of Ranching for Wildlife, Forbes was able to reintroduce the bighorn, steward their health and numbers, and eventually receive the only authorized licenses for bighorn hunting in that area. (This meant that landowners who had not invested in the sheep's recovery could not ride free on Forbes' success.)

Since 1986, Ranching for Wildlife has spread throughout Colorado, in large part because both hunters and regulators realize its value in keeping wildlife habitat intact. It came to the Taylor Ranch in the early 1990s, bringing a financial boon for the Taylors, a conservation boost for wildlife, and a chance for local hunters to attain a world class hunt for the price of a dinner and a movie. Ranching for Wildlife not only improved environmental conditions on the Taylor Ranch, it helped stop poaching. Locals, whose poaching activities had, according to Colorado's Division of Wildlife, seriously reduced the elk herd in the 1980s, now had controlled but legal access to high-valued elk. For the first time, the ranch's wildlife was paying its own way, a key point for the estate tax-strapped Taylor family.

While Ranching for Wildlife was establishing itself on the Taylor Ranch, endangered species lawsuits virtually shut down logging on western public lands, driving timber prices from a low of $40 per thousand board-feet in 1990 to more than $200 in 1994. Overnight, the ranch tripled in value–a blessing that was tempered by tripled tax obligations and the ever-escalating litigation costs of Rael v. Taylor. Federal and state agencies made a series of buyout proposals, none of which took the change in the land's value into account and all of which were rejected by the Taylor family.

Faced with dead deals and mounting debt, Zack Taylor began in 1996 to cut timber he had sold a few years earlier at top market prices. Incensed by Taylor's brazen defiance of the community's claims to the timber of La Sierra, the Land Rights Council ratcheted up its legal assault. The more it sued, the more timber Taylor had to cut to pay his legal bills; the more he cut, the louder grew the screams that he was raping the land.

In an ill-fated move, the Land Rights Council sought support from the fringe of the Anglo environmentalist movement. Soon, members of the Boulder-based Ancient Forest Rescue were chaining themselves to the Taylor Ranch gates, claiming that "the clearcutting of pristine old-growth forests" was destroying a unique and valuable culture, damaging the Rio Culebra watershed, and threatening an endangered species. None of these claims turned out to be true, but anyone who challenged them was branded as anti-environment and racist to boot.

In October 1997, Federal Judge Gaspar Perricone heard the latest version of Rael v. Taylor in San Luis. He denied all class action claims and ordered yet another trial to test the individual claims of a handful of the remaining heirs of 1851. His subsequent decision not only denied all claims to the ranch but reversed his 1997 decision to consider individual claims. Except for a lingering and desperate appeal by the Land Rights Council, Rael v. Taylor was over at last.

What is not over is the saga of the Taylor Ranch, and the promising future it could offer the people of San Luis and the wildlife of La Sierra.

For much of La Sierra's recent history, the high elevation spruce-fir forests that ring Culebra Peak have been the grandest prize, and the greatest bone of contention, among the parties warring over title to the mountain tract. Jack Taylor clearcut sizable chunks of the ranch–up to 500 acres in a single cut–in the 1970s. Evidence of those cuts persists, and the likelihood of at least some damage to species and watershed is almost certain. Zack Taylor is logging the ranch today, albeit with a more benign strategy of select cuts that leaves the spruce-fir forests visually and ecologically intact and the watershed relatively unaffected. For his opponents, this amounts to rape and plunder. They point to Culebra Peak and bemoan the disappearance of presumed pristine and ancient stands of spruce and fir.

But La Sierra's forests are not virgin and they are not being plundered. Most of the Culebra watershed burned to the ground in the late 1800s. Both before and after those conflagrations, the people of San Luis cut and hauled away a generous share of La Sierra's timber, just as Jack Taylor felled his abundant share in the 1970s. Moreover, the current timber practices on the Taylor Ranch meet the standard of best-management practices, as the Colorado State Forest Service has testified. The Culebra watershed is intact, the Rio Culebra runs clean and cold, and the ranch's wildlife is healthy and diverse.

If Taylor is to be faulted, it is for the rate of his cut, a rate that can only be sustained for a few years. Yet his decision to cut more now and less later is not without cause. Besides his tax burden and the high price for timber, there is the real chance that an endless stream of lawsuits and protests might rob his family of the future benefits that might accrue if he let the timber stand a few more years. That same fear led Taylor to sell the southern end of the ranch in late 1998, a move with far more negative ecological consequences than a simple skimming of La Sierra's more robust trees.

But debate on the prudence and procedures of logging, however reasoned and informed, still begs the larger point: The spruce-fir forests of La Sierra are not the ranch's most valuable ecological or economic asset. Less than 15 percent of the ranch contains commercial timber. The other 85 percent is made up of aspen woodlands, grassland, and low elevation pine and sagebrush. These habitats, not the high elevation forests, are what constitute and will sustain the long-term health of the Taylor Ranch. It is here, not on the dark and sterile evergreen forest floors, that La Sierra's wildlife resides. The future of the Taylor Ranch rests not in its sparse forests, however valuable they may be for the moment, but in its wild animals and the lucrative recreation they allow.

Ted Turner knows this. His Vermijo Ranch, in New Mexico, borders La Sierra on the south; he has pioneered the practice of turning wildlife and recreation into both big profits and big dividends for the environment. Malcolm Forbes knew it, and his sons know it now; Trinchera is a refuge for wilderness because hunters, and attendees at the Forbes conference center, will pay for it. Zack Taylor is just now beginning to see it, especially as the burden of lawsuits and protests recedes.

Ironically, the greatest environmental damage now occurring on the Taylor Ranch has nothing to do with cutting trees and everything to do with the one communal use of the land that has persisted over the years: cattle grazing.

Long before Jack Taylor's tenure, the tradition of open access grazing had taken its toll on the health of the Culebra watershed. William deBuys, the region's most respected environmental historian, is unequivocal on this: "The old ways, while generous to humans, were exceedingly hard on the land. Neither the ejido nor the cultivated [irrigated] tracts received any rest [from livestock] except when they were buried under snow…." (This legacy of devastation is never decried by Ancient Forest Rescue or the Land Rights Council, whose eyes are fixed on the trees of La Sierra.)

DOW's Ranching for Wildlife review team blames the historic condition of the ranch on intensive stock grazing through the first three-quarters of the century, a period that largely predates the arrival of the Taylor family. That grazing degraded rangelands, dried up streams, and accelerated erosion. The better part of Zack Taylor's Ranching for Wildlife contract is an agreement to restore the abused rangelands. Last year Taylor eased back on that obligation, allowing Hispanic farmers hurt by a drought to graze more livestock than they should have. Because of this overgrazing–not logging–DOW barred Taylor from Ranching for Wildlife, effective this fall. He can re-enter the program when he takes action to restore and protect his rangelands, so vital for elk in the winter, from the impact of cattle.

Taylor's suspension from Ranching for Wildlife is a blow to conservation on La Sierra and a blow to the San Luisans who benefit from legal hunting on the ranch. But it is also one last chance to end the property rights conflict that has divided La Sierra between private and communal interests for 50 years. A bold new plan could transform the Taylor Ranch into a model of private conservation across the West and, at the same time, give substance and form to the San Luisans' moral, if not legal, claims to a share of the forage, water, wood, and wildlife resources of La Sierra.

In March 1999, conservationists, scientists, and landowners from southern Africa and the western United States met at Forbes' ranch to discuss private responsibility for private land stewardship. The gathering was hosted by the Thoreau Institute and the Sand County Foundation; its attendees included Zack Taylor and the authors of this essay.

The chemistry was unique. Across from us sat farmers from southern Zimbabwe who had joined with their neighbors to set up the Bubiana Conservancy, a wildlife cooperative dedicated to the private management of animals ranging from rhino to elephant to cape buffalo. Taylor, a neophyte to wildlife conservation, listened to them intently. These farmers were committed to conservation; against all obstacles, including a Marxist state hungrily eyeing their lands, they were fighting for private wilderness and private wildlife. Taylor, too, faced expropriation, but the conservation daring of these Zimbabwean environmentalists was something new, unsettling, yet ultimately alluring.

After that meeting, Taylor was more willing to consider a plan–first suggested months earlier by the authors of this essay–that would reconcile private property rights with historic communal uses, and would do so through the transforming power of the marketplace. Similar to the African initiatives, the plan would turn the Taylor Ranch into a resource bank for both its owners and its neighbors. The bank would provide a continuous flow of resource benefits to San Luisans. Those benefits would then contribute to the profit-making wildlife and timber ventures of the Taylor family.

The Ranching for Wildlife program would be expanded, on a voluntary basis, to embrace the valley bottom farms that border the Taylor Ranch and that contain the elk winter range that the ranch now lacks. Currently, those farms grow grass to feed cattle in winter. Yet the value of those cattle when fed on winter hay is only a fraction of the economic value of elk when raised on the same forage, uncut and unbaled. By adding small parcels of former haylands to La Sierra's expansive summer upland ranges, the total number of available elk licenses in Taylor's Ranching for Wildlife contract would increase significantly. The Taylor family would earn more revenue, the small farms would more than double their profits from their valley meadows, and enough cash would be left over to buy local hay to sustain their displaced cattle for the winter.

During the summer, cattle grazing would continue on the Taylor Ranch, but with two big differences. First, there would no longer be a grazing fee. Second, in return for the free grass, community stockmen would assume responsibility for 1) protecting sensitive areas, such as wetlands, from the adverse effects of cattle; 2) stopping the cattle from trespassing and overgrazing; and 3) herding and holding their livestock in key areas where the stock's activities would help wildlife. (Local Hispanic farmers are already organizing, at their own initiative, a stockmen's association to regulate grazing on La Sierra and to help Taylor meet his obligations to Ranching for Wildlife.)

Community rights would also be hitched to the fate of the ranch's timber and water resources. First, the resource bank would keep sustainable logging alive on the Taylor Ranch, benefiting both the Taylors and the villagers. The bank would give logging rights to San Luisans in small-diameter spruce-fir thinnings and 5- to 15-acre aspen patch cuts. The harvest would then be processed locally to produce lucrative value-added products, such as molding. The thinned forests would accelerate the growth of commercial timber while opening the forest floor to sunlight and more plants for wildlife. Small aspen clearcuts would rejuvenate decadent and dying aspen stands while creating ideal summer grasslands for elk. Everyone would gain: The Taylor Ranch and surrounding farmlands would have more elk to hunt; the Taylor family could harvest more timber, sooner; and the local community could build a thriving industry.

Second, and possibly most important, the community's thinning and patch-cutting could be designed to retain more snow in the forest and to optimize how much of it melts into the watershed in the summer. The irrigation waters below the ranch could then run cleaner and longer, benefiting local farmers. Further up the watershed, proper timber management would spur on the already growing population of beavers, the keystone species for sustaining the highly productive wetlands so essential to a broad array of plant and animal life.

It's too early to tell if the resource bank will work, or even if all the players in La Sierra's future will embrace its benefits, its responsibilities, and its challenges to conventional thinking. But this much is certain. The mountain land stretching from Turner's Vermijo Ranch to the Forbes property and beyond is private. And each of those properties is an island of conservation hope in a grim sea of failed federal management.

The weak link in the string of private pearls is the Taylor Ranch, mostly by dint of its contested title. But if those rights can be adjudicated by informal means, the string will be complete and secure. A private wildland of vast proportions will find a long-sought niche in the federally owned West. And as Americans debate the future of public lands and federal wilderness, the solitary bay of the first privately reintroduced gray wolf will echo across a landscape carved in love and profit by the capitalist tools of Turner, Taylor, and Forbes.

Karl Hess Jr. (khess4@aol.com) and Tom Wolf (cnealson@rmi.net) are western writers and senior associates of the Thoreau Institute.