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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

There's an unusual experiment in land use going on in southern Colorado. In a historic decision, the state Supreme Court ordered a private property owner to share his ranch with families in the valley that claimed ancestral rights to it.

It's a one of a kind attempt to harmonize private and communal land rights, and it's not going especially well, as NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT: After a quarter century legal struggle, Hispanic ranchers in Costilla County, Colorado, finally have a key. And this is the sound of their victory.

(Soundbite of gate opening)

BURNETT: A gray whiskered cowman named Eugene Lobato turns his key, pops a padlock, and pushes open a green steel gate. The road ahead winds up a mountain that his family has used for most of six generations. His herd of Black Angus cattle loiters nearby.

Mr. EUGENE LOBATO (Rancher, Costilla County, Colorado): Easy, baby. They don't recognize you. They recognize me. If I drop by myself I could go and touch him. Cattle know their masters.

BURNETT: On this side of the gate is Lobato pastureland, which the family owns. On the other side is the common land, a highland track called La Sierra. Wording in a Spanish land grant said people in this valley have the right to use that property, which includes 14,000-foot Culebra Peak, the tallest southernmost mountains in the Rockies.

For more than a hundred years, people treated access to La Sierra as their birthright. They grazed their cattle and sheep there in the summer, hunted elk, fished for cutthroat trout and gathered wood. Then, in 1960, a pugnacious North Carolina lumberman named Jack Taylor bought La Sierra, all 77,000 acres of it. He promptly fenced it off and shut out the villagers. A range war broke out, there was gunfire, it got ugly and it got litigious.

Over the next four decades, judge after judge ruled against the people of Costilla County to regain their rights to La Sierra. Then, in 1992, the Colorado Supreme Court surprised everybody by siding with the plaintiffs and ordering the new owner, an Enron executive named Lou Pai, to share the mountain. The decision was like a miracle for Eugene Lobato and other ranchers in the valley.

Mr. LOBATO: It meant that we had the right, that we could continue using the rights that my ancestors had, that we had the rights to come over here to gather wood and to gather lumber to make our house, and to pasture our cattle.

(Soundbite of footsteps in grass)

BURNETT: Lobato tramps through dry grass back to his pickup. A herd of elk is silhouetted against the snow bank far across the valley.

How does it make you feel when you stand here and look around these mountains?

Mr. LOBATO: It feels like you're in paradise, like you're in heaven. That's how I feel.

BURNETT: It may feel like heaven, but it's been hell living with the court decision according to Bobby Hill. He's the wealthy 60-year-old Texas rancher who currently co-owns La Sierra.

Mr. BOBBY HILL (Rancher and Co-owner, La Sierra): Would that work? It's your house. If you bought and paid for your home, if somebody said, well, John Doe might come by and stay once every few months for overnight. But then the next thing you know, John Doe brings all his children. And instead of having one person, you have 10 or 15, or 20 that come at their will and their leisure and do whatever they please. And you have no say about that.

BURNETT: Hill and a partner bought the ranch two years ago for commercial elk hunting and for stewardship. He knew the key holders were coming. He just thought they could all co-exist. The last two years have proven the implementation of the court ruling to be chaotic. So far, 324 people have been certified to receive keys, with many more on the way.

Old timers recent that many of them are out-of-staters who merely own real estate in the valley that now carries mountain use rights. Hill complains only grazing and wood gathering are supposed to be allowed. But he says poaching and trespassing are common.

Mr. HILL: Parents will receive a key, they'll give it to their kid, their kid will bring three guests with them. There was one person this past two to three weeks that was quoted as saying, oh, if somebody catches you up there, just throw a couple of sticks of firewood in the back of your truck and say you're gathering firewood. These people were up there with a shotgun meandering up and down a creek, had no intention of gathering firewood because there's no guidelines.

BURNETT: It's true. There's no land use program enforced on La Sierra. Though one is in the works. Arnold Valdez is a longtime land grant activist and himself a key holder. And he's also frustrated.

Mr. ARNOLD VALDEZ (Land Grant Activist): A lot of the people - I'm not saying that everybody is that way, but a lot of people don't respect where they take that key to, I mean, all we can - we have access to the ranch and we can do what we want.

BURNETT: Valdez and Hill agree separately that if things continue like they're going, La Sierra will end up back in court, perhaps with more stringent rules.

Mr. VALDEZ: This is our opportunity. We're being watched. Either we set the example and do well and it'll build up some momentum, you know, with other land grant movements. But we have to be careful in that so we don't overstep the boundaries

BURNETT: Indeed, land grant activists in New Mexico have also been fighting to regain rights to ancestral property, and they look to Costilla County as a rare victory, a beacon and a model. But if things don't improve, La Sierra may be the first and last experiment in the Southwest at sharing private and communal property rights.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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