"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 farms.
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.
The 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."
* Becky Rumsey
Former HCN staffer Becky Rumsey is a radio producer in Boulder, Colorado.