close
close

Voice News

CA News 2024

searchengine

How an 8-foot fence sparked a battle between one of Colorado’s poorest counties and an out-of-state billionaire – Greeley Tribune

Eli Rael spends the evening splitting firewood at his ranch, which borders El Cielo Vista Ranch, also known as La Sierra, near San Luis, Colorado, on April 24, 2024. He pointed out that most of the wood piled to his right came from the 83,000-acre ranch, where Rael and other locals have access rights for gathering firewood and running livestock. As a member of La Sierra Environmental Guardian Committee, Rael opposes the installation of 8-foot fencing on the ranch’s perimeter, seen in the background. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

SAN LUIS — The fence stands 8 feet tall and slices across miles of the sagebrush sea of the San Luis Valley, dividing hillsides from creeks, creeks from wildlife.

Frank Vigil stepped out of his truck to survey one section of fence built in recent years by the billionaire owner of 83,000-acre El Cielo Vista Ranch — one of Colorado’s most pristine and contentious mountain properties, with holdings that include one of the state’s 14ers. The barbed wire-topped fence stretched south across the high valley toward New Mexico as far as the eye could see. Green “NO TRESPASSING” signs were affixed to the fence intermittently, and a pole-mounted camera in the shape of an orb watched the gate where Vigil stood.

Frank Vigil reads a note taped on one of the gates where he and other locals were given keys to access the Cielo Vista Ranch near San Luis, Colorado on April 24, 2024. Vigil is part of local group called the La Sierra Environmental Guardian Committee who are fighting the installation of 8-foot fencing that is bring used at 88,000-acre Cielo Vista Ranch, or La Sierra, near San Luis, Colorado on April 24, 2024. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
Frank Vigil reads a note taped on one of the gates to the Cielo Vista Ranch near San Luis, Colorado on April 24, 2024. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

He and others who live in rural, sparsely populated Costilla County southeast of Alamosa estimate the multimillion-dollar fence now spans at least 20 miles of the ranch’s border. Locals in the tiny towns nearby fear the fence will block wildlife migration and that the erosion from 12-foot-wide paths bulldozed to make way for the fence will wash sediment and heavy metals into their water sources.

“We grew up here. We know people need fences,” said Vigil, 72. “But we don’t need to tear up the whole world to build a prison fence.”

Contention over the fence is the latest flare-up in decades of conflict between a succession of out-of-state billionaire owners of the property and the approximately 3,500 people who live along the ranch’s eastern border — some of whom have access rights on the land dating back to before Colorado became a state.

The fence construction pits the residents of one of the state’s poorest and most diverse counties, along with its local government, against the heir of a Houston oil family fortune.

Already, erosion from the bulldozed land along the fence pathway has gashed deep trenches in the dirt in some areas. Rainfall flushes sediment through the trenches and deposits the sand and gravel on county roads, into irrigation ditches and onto yards, residents said.

Locals have seen deer, turkey and elk pace the fence, their path blocked.

The ranch failed to seek county and state permits for the construction and ignored a moratorium put in place by the county, local officials said. The small government initiated an expensive legal battle, seeking — and last fall, temporarily winning — a judge’s order to halt the project.

The ranch’s owner, William Harrison, seems to be pursuing a war of attrition to build the fence, suggested Ben Doon, Costilla County’s chief administrative officer.

Harrison can afford unlimited legal resources. The county cannot.

“We can’t bankrupt the county for this,” Doon said. “We’re going to do what we can and what our conscience tells us to do, but at some point, the county commissioners might have a really tough decision to make.”

On Harrison’s side, his attorney, Jamie Cotter, said much of the ranch had been fenced for decades. The ranch needed the new, taller fence to keep out trespassers who do not have access rights to the property and to keep the ranch’s small bison herd inside, she said. The ranch doesn’t plan to encircle the entire property, she said — adding that the fencing project was nearly complete before a judge issued the order halting further construction.

Harrison has a legal right to build a fence on his private property, Cotter said. She suggested that the fury over the fence was limited to a small, vocal group of local residents.

“In the vast majority of instances, we’re just replacing fence that has been there — it’s not a new issue,” Cotter said. “What is new is the fervor of a small group of people who, I believe, are misinterpreting what the legal issue is, which is: What are the regulations and what does the fence have to do going forward? There is no legal claim that Mr. Harrison can’t build a fence or has to tear it down.”

Members of La Sierra Environmental Guardian Committee, which formed to oppose the fence, say that beyond ecological concerns, the fence construction also has psychological impacts.

It’s an intimidation tactic, a declaration of power and another element of the “low-intensity” warfare that has been ongoing for decades between ranch owners and the community, said Shirley Romero Otero, one of the hundreds of community members with legal rights to access the property for grazing and collecting firewood. People in the valley rely on the mountain property — called La Sierra by the community for more than a century — for firewood to heat their homes in the winter and space for their cattle, she said.

Not only does the fence keep wildlife in, Romero Otero said, it sends a message to the community at large, including those who have legal rights to enter the land: Stay out.

“He sees the land and water as commodities,” she said. “To us, you couldn’t put a price on it. It’s more than just a playground, it’s a connection to the land.”

A local group is fighting the installation of 8-foot fencing bring on the 83,000-acre Cielo Vista Ranch also known as La Sierra near San Luis, Colorado on April 24, 2024. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
Part of the fencing around the 83,000-acre Cielo Vista Ranch near San Luis, Colorado, on April 24, 2024. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Unique history, drawn-out disputes

The last major dispute between valley residents and the owner of the ranch property twisted through Colorado’s court system for more than 40 years.

Before Colorado became a state, a French Canadian trapper owned the ranch. He granted grazing, hunting and logging rights to Mexican and Spanish families who settled in the valley in the mid-1800s as an incentive to attract people to the area.

With almost no public land in the county, La Sierra was the only opportunity to access forest and grazing. For decades, the descendants of those Sangre de Cristo Land Grant families relied on it for subsistence hunting and firewood for heat during the valley’s long, cold winters.

In 1960, a lumberman from North Carolina, Jack Taylor, bought the ranch and closed access to the residents of the valley with land grant rights. The ensuing legal battle stretched into the new millennium and across subsequent owners.

Since Taylor, the ranch has been owned by a string of Texans: an Enron executive, a group of ranchers and, now, Harrison.

Click to enlarge

The 130-square-mile ranch was listed for sale in 2017 for $105 million and sold to Harrison, who was scheduled to receive his inheritance when he turned 30 that same year. The property listing boasted of trophy-size elk, a resident herd of bighorn sheep and ownership of 19 mountain peaks — including 14,053-foot Culebra Peak.

Harrison, like his predecessor, continued pressing the case over land grant access. A 2002 Colorado Supreme Court decision had allowed access to the property to about 5,000 descendants of the land grant families for limited grazing and firewood collecting. A year after purchasing the ranch, Harrison appealed the 2002 decision.

But a short time later, after the Colorado Court of Appeals denied his appeal, he announced that he would drop the litigation.

In a news release announcing his decision, Harrison said it was time for the ranch and the community to have a more positive conversation about the long-term management of the ranch.

“We all share a common bond in the land and its resources, so I’m hopeful we can start working towards agreements to make our shared resource work for everyone,” Harrison said then. “I look forward to a new year and a new approach to some very old problems.”

Meetings between land grant holders and Harrison quickly fell apart, however.

Three years later, Harrison started building the fence.

Joseph Quintana, a neighbor of the Cielo Vista Ranch, also known as La Sierra, embarked on a hike up a drainage ravine to inspect erosion he believes has accelerated since crews bulldozed fence lines on a section of the ranch in 2020 near San Luis, Colorado, on April 24, 2024. Quintana, a member of the local group called La Sierra Environmental Guardian Committee, opposes the installation of 8-foot fencing being utilized at the 83,000-acre ranch. Quintana observed a section of the ranch's old-style fencing where a post hung in the air, having soil eroded beneath it. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
Joseph Quintana, a neighbor of the Cielo Vista Ranch, also known as La Sierra, embarked on a hike up a drainage ravine to inspect erosion he believes has accelerated since crews bulldozed fence lines in 2020 on a section of the ranch near San Luis, Colorado, on April 24, 2024. Quintana observed a section of the ranch’s old-style fencing where a post hung in the air, having soil eroded from beneath it. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Sediment in the creeks, trapped wildlife

Shortly after construction began in 2021, Dr. Joseph Quintana noticed washes of rocks and sand began to appear on the road in front of his house after rainstorms.

The recently retired doctor has lived on the parcel of land off County Road K5 nearly his entire life. In the hills above his house, workers bulldozed a path over craggy hills and arroyos for the fence, but never actually built it. When it rains, sediment blocks the road, clogs the irrigation ditch in front of his house and spreads into his yard, he said.

In 2023, he said he measured a sediment wash 257 feet wide that was five feet deep in some places. The water cut ravines into the bulldozed earth, some as deep as 8 feet, he said.

“They’re building trenches instead of roads,” Quintana said of the bulldozed swaths, some of which are visible in satellite imaging.

County staff often have to clear roads of sediment after storms, county administrator Doon said, but the problem has worsened since fence construction began.

“There’s no question that the scars from the fences are making the runoff worse,” he said.

The ranch did not seek a state permit for the project, as required by state law, until after the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sent a March 13 letter warning that the unpermitted construction may violate the Colorado Water Quality Control Act, CDPHE spokesman John Michael said in an email.

The ranch manager applied for a permit on March 29, and the department issued a permit on April 12.

The permit system requires the creation of a plan to control the discharge of sediment and other potential pollutants from construction sites and to protect water quality, Michael said. The ranch is responsible for staying in compliance with the permit, he said, though state water-quality staff plan to inspect the fence construction.

Cindy Medina, a community leader on water issues in the valley, came to San Luis to see the fence at the invitation of those opposing it.

“I don’t want to be overdramatic about this, but I got nauseous about it,” said Medina, who has worked on local water issues since the 1980s. “I couldn’t believe the damage. It’s really a degradation of their watershed.”

A local group is fighting the installation of 8-foot fencing bring on the 83,000-acre Cielo Vista Ranch also known as La Sierra near San Luis, Colorado on April 24, 2024. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
Part of the fencing around the 83,000-acre Cielo Vista Ranch near San Luis, Colorado, on April 24, 2024. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Some residents in the valley also worry what the fence will mean for wildlife. The fence is more than 8 feet tall and is topped with a strand of barbed wire — too high for many animals to jump and dangerous for those that attempt to do so. The wire grid that makes up the fence narrows to openings 3 inches tall, which is too tight for many animals like turkeys, coyotes and bobcats to crawl through.

Residents interviewed for this story shared photographs of turkey, elk and deer pacing the fence, unable to pass. Some sections of the fence block off access to the creeks that come down from the mountain range. If a wildfire were to burn through the property, residents worry that animals would be trapped against the fence.

Cotter, Harrison’s attorney, said ranch managers would allow the areas bulldozed for fence construction to return to their natural, vegetated state. They also plan to build more wildlife jumps in the existing fence so that animals can cross the fence more easily. But that can’t happen while the judge’s order halting construction is in place, Cotter said.

“We’re being yelled at for not having wildlife jumps, but at the same time being told we can’t put wildlife jumps in,” she said.

The fence does not align with Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s best practices for wildlife-safe fencing. The guidelines state that fences that are too high to jump, are too low to crawl under, have wires spaced too tightly and create a complete barrier are “problem fences.” It also warns against fencing a large area with a barrier that blocks wildlife movement.

But Colorado Parks and Wildlife does not have any legal authority over fences on private property, spokesman John Livingston said in an email. County regulations generally dictate fencing rules, he said.

County officials, however, said they have struggled to get Harrison to comply with existing local regulations.

Ranchers push their cattle down a quiet Costilla County Road outside the 83,000-acre Cielo Vista Ranch, also known as La Sierra, near San Luis, Colorado on April 24, 2024. Locals living near the ranch are allowed access to the property to run their livestock and also gather firewood. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
Ranchers push their cattle down a quiet Costilla County Road outside the 83,000-acre Cielo Vista Ranch, also known as La Sierra, near San Luis, Colorado on April 24, 2024. Locals living near the ranch are allowed access to the property to run their livestock and also gather firewood. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

An imbalance in resources

Costilla County did not have a regulation barring the installation of a fence like Harrison’s before construction started, said Doon, the county administrator. But other regulations did apply to the project: Construction work of that scale would have required a grading permit and a permit for construction inside the county’s watershed protection district, he said.

Even before the fence undertaking, Doon said, county officials often had to track down ranch employees to get them to fill out permits before building houses and other projects on the property.

Harrison and his ranch staff seem to think he is immune from local rules, Doon said.

“The part I struggle the most with is how combative and belligerent they’ve been about this process,” he said. “They’re refusing to get $100 or $200 permits, even with all the resources they have.”

Harrison’s resources far outstrip those of most of Latino-majority Costilla County, where a quarter of residents live below the federal poverty line and the median income is $34,500, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The imbalance in resources is playing out in the legal fight over the fence.

County officials first learned of the fence project when constituents brought the issue forward in 2021. County commissioners in September issued a moratorium on fences more than 5 feet tall and grading of land to create such fences, but Harrison continued to build the fence.

“The fact that they built as fast as they could with three out-of-state crews during the moratorium was just a middle finger in our face,” Doon said.

The county filed a lawsuit and asked a judge to force the ranch to stop.

Cotter said the ranch’s legal team believes the moratorium was not legal. Harrison’s attorneys responded to the lawsuit with a filing that accused the county of using “the flimsy guise” of the moratorium to “single out” the ranch.

“Why? Because for years residents of Costilla County have been hectoring the (Board of County Commissioners), and the arms of Costilla County government more generally, to prohibit CVR from fencing its real property,” the response states.

A local group is fighting the installation of 8-foot fencing bring on the 83,000-acre Cielo Vista Ranch also known as La Sierra near San Luis, Colorado on April 24, 2024. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
Part of the fencing around the 83,000-acre Cielo Vista Ranch near San Luis, Colorado, on April 24, 2024. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The judge on Oct. 13 upheld the moratorium and found that thousands of feet of fence had been constructed after the ban was in place. Construction on the fence has been halted since the judge’s order came out, but Harrison has continued to fight the moratorium. A trial is set for Oct. 8. In the meantime, the county has asked the judge to order the ranch to take down all fencing built during the moratorium, which remains in effect until September, Doon said.

The case so far has cost the county about $80,000, and Doon expects the expense to grow substantially. The county is paying for outside legal counsel out of its general fund, which has an annual budget of $3 million.

The ranch has also filed a series of civil actions against individual residents of the valley, alleging trespassing and improper use of the land.

Since March 1, the ranch has filed complaints against 12 people for actions that allegedly took place months prior. One complaint alleges a person without access rights used a rights holders’ key to access the ranch to gather firewood in January. Another alleges three people trespassed on the land in October.

The ranch is not seeking financial damages from the alleged trespassers, Cotter said, but wants court decisions clarifying that people without access rights cannot go on the property.

Shirley Romero-Otero is part of a local group called the La Sierra Environmental Guardian Committee who are fighting the installation of 8-foot fencing that is bring used at 88,000-acre Cielo Vista Ranch, also known as La Sierra, near San Luis, Colorado on April 24, 2024. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
Shirley Romero Otero on April 24, 2024. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Because the complaints are civil, not criminal, the alleged trespassers do not have a right to a free public defender and are left to pay attorneys fees out of their pocket, said Bernadette Lucero, a member of La Sierra Environmental Guardian Committee. She spoke to The Post during an interview that also included Romero Otero, another member.

As the legal fight over the fence continues, the members of the committee are looking to raise money to pay for experts to evaluate damage from the fence. They’ve contacted their representatives in the statehouse and Congress, inviting them to come see the fence and get involved in the fight, but have not heard back. They have collected more than 3,000 signatures of people who support their work, Vigil said.

If residents were concerned about a similar fence being built near Aspen or Vail, state officials would respond quickly to the affluent communities’ needs, Lucero said.

“But we’re dealing with it. We’re marginalized people with no political pull, who don’t have any money,” she said. “We’re just trying to live our lives and enjoy the history and culture that we’re all so proud of.”

Romero Otero interjected: “But what we do have is community and a long history of struggle. We’re not going anywhere — we’re resilient.”

Get more Colorado news by signing up for our Mile High Roundup email newsletter.