The "little cloud" on the title of the Taylor Ranch in Colorado's San Luis Valley remains, thanks to a landmark Colorado Supreme Court ruling in favor of Costilla County residents. On May 2, the court said there should be a trial to determine whether the constitutional rights of residents were violated in 1960, when landowner Jack Taylor filed suit to clear his title to the 77,000-acre remnant of a Mexican land grant (HCN, 10/18/93).
"We're ecstatic. It's such a victory,"
says activist Maria Valdez. "People will have their day in court."
For over a century, people in San Luis, Colo.,
and neighboring villages used the land for wood-gathering, grazing,
hunting and fishing to supplement small
Taylor, a North Carolina lumberman,
ignited a war when he bought the land, fenced locals out and won
clear title in 1965. In 1981, the Land Rights Council, representing
hundreds of land-grant heirs, challenged that decision, arguing
that they'd been deprived of rights to use the land as a commons
without proper notification.
After defeats in
lower courts, the council won its first victory with the recent
ruling, which may have implications for land-grant disputes
throughout the region.
"This case is as
significant as the Alaska Native claims cases currently pending in
U.S. court," says Colorado ACLU attorney David Miller. "The
constitutional right to due process belongs to all people whether
they were the conquerers or the conquered ... It's never too late
to consider the claims of displaced native people."
New Mexico land-grant scholar and anthropologist
John Van Ness agrees. "The situation in San Luis is a microcosm of
the history of the struggle over rights to land in the West," he
says. "All this history of tenure rights may now be given a full
hearing, which has not been the case in the 20th century."
The 4-3 decision was a year in the making.
Dissenting justices said it would cast uncertainty on the security
and marketability of land titles in Colorado.
decision darkens the prospects of Jack Taylor's heirs, who had
hoped to sell the ranch for $30 million. In March, Zach Taylor,
executor of his deceased father's estate, rejected a $15 million
offer from the state. After Taylor rejected the state's offer, the
Land Rights Council withdrew from the tenuous coalition. Some
residents rankled at the idea of buying back rights they say were
granted to them in the 1800s; there was also disagreement over who
would have rights to use the land once it was acquired.
The state supreme court decision has given the
legal battle new vigor and the community a cause to rally around.
But many more years of litigation may be necessary before the
courts settle the question of communal rights on the Sangre de
Cristo Land Grant. Council attorney Jeff Goldstein says the group's
work has just begun. "Now we've got a trial to prepare for."
Former HCN staffer
Becky Rumsey is a radio producer in Boulder,