Mountain Tract Access Rights on La Sierra
Some land parcels at Wild Horse Mesa include Mountain Tract Access rights on Cielo Vista Ranch, known locally as La Sierra, 80,000 acres in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Costilla County, east of San Luis. The land includes Culebra Peak, 14,053 feet.
This area was once part of the Nuevo México province of New Spain, since the 1598 expedition by Governor Juan de Oñate. Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821. Mexico issued the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant in 1844 to encourage settlement and defend the northern frontier.
In 1847, to recruit settlers (pobladores) to move to the San Luis Valley, Carlos Beaubien, the grant holder, offered 50 varas of waterfront land on Culebra Creek (Rio Culebra) to single men, and 100 varas to married men. Culebra means snake in Spanish, referring to the winding serpentine creek.
Vara is a Spanish word for rod or pole, used in the Upper Rio Grande (Rio Arriba) region. It is an Old Castilian measuring unit for width, similar to a yard, used in the metes and bounds system. A vara is 32.090 inches, made up of 3 pies (feet) of 10.969 each. Length is measured in leguas (leagues), where 1 legua = 5,000 varas.
In Spain, the word used is extensión, in the Lower Rio Grande Region, the word is porción, in other areas the word is suerte.
To make land measurements, two men or riders, cordeleros, (see photo) would go out with poles connected with a length of rope (cordel), 50 varas long (about 137 feet).
Vara plots are long, narrow riparian strips of land, typically 100 to 500 varas wide, extending from a river or creek for a long distance, up to 5 to 20 miles. Vara plots were laid out in several acequia settlements in the San Luis Valley.
Acequias use gradually-sloped, gravity-powered irrigation ditches, maintained by the farmers. The acequia system came from Spain, brought there by the Romans, and improved by the Moors from arid North Africa.
The vara plots and acequias are still in use today and can be seen near the Rio Culebra villages of San Luis, San Acacio, San Pablo, San Pedro, Chama, Los Fuertes, and San Francisco.
The San Luis Peoples Ditch dug in 1852, has the oldest and highest priority water rights in Colorado.
The bottomland near the creek is used to grow irrigated crops in the dry climate. The long vara strips extend up into higher elevations, with a different climate zone, soils, vegetation, and habitat, for grazing, hunting, wood and rock gathering and recreation.
Vega Pasture and Mountain Tract
The land grant also includes a public commons grazing area, or la vega, for use as pasture by all landowners in the community. Another common use area, on the mountain tract, was designated for grazing livestock, hunting, fishing, recreation, gathering firewood and cutting timber to build homes.
The 1863 Beaubien Document, written in Spanish, documented the land rights for the varas, vega and mountain tract, and is recorded in the Costilla County land records in deed book 1, page 256, and has been translated into English by several writers.
All the inhabitants will have enjoyment of pastures, water, firewood, and timber, always taking care not to injure another. Carlos Beaubien, May 11, 1863
Even though the farmers lived in the bottomland, far from the unoccupied upland end of the vara, the entire lengths of the 170 vara strips were considered settled in 1869, when the grant had a new owner, William Gilpin, the first Governor of Colorado Territory.
Taylor Ranch Blocks Access
The original vara landowners and their descendants had used the irrigated land, vega pasture and mountain tract areas for a hundred years.
Then, in 1960, a wealthy lumberman, Jack Taylor from North Carolina, bought the mountain land for logging. He installed locked gates that blocked out the local people, creating anger, protests and some violence by denying long-standing access rights.
Taylor Ranch is now known as Cielo Vista Ranch (see map) and is owned by a wealthy heir to a Texas oil fortune.
Colorado Supreme Court Restores Mountain Tract Access Rights
After decades of legal battles in court, with activist leadership by the Land Rights Council, the vara landowners eventually won back their mountain tract access rights to use La Sierra.
In 2002, the Colorado Supreme Court overturned prior lower court rulings, deciding in Lobato v. Taylor to grant Mountain Tract Access rights to over 4,000 vara heirs to use for pasture, firewood, and timber, as promised by the original land grant, but not for fishing, hunting or recreation use. By court order, keys are issued for rightful landowners to unlock the ranch gates to gain access to the mountain.
Wild Horse Mesa Mountain Tract Access
Due to subdivisions that have been created, the original 170 vara strips, are now divided into 6,300 parcels, including some parcels on the east side of Wild Horse Mesa, that were at the far upland end of vara strips. The legal descriptions for these parcels include Mountain Tract Access (MTA) rights.
Mountain Tract Access increases property value and can be useful if a property owner wants to cut timber to build a log cabin, or to gather firewood for a wood stove, or to graze a horse or other livestock.