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A person in a blue jacket and hat is securing a gate in a metal fence in a dry, shrub-covered landscape with trees and hills in the background.
Eli Rael uses rocks to prop open a gate in the 8-foot fence that separates his ranch from the Cielo Vista Ranch boundary. His cattle move through the gate to graze on the mountain, then return home to drink from the creek. Rael recently was accused of trespassing when he went to check on his cows on horseback. (John McEvoy, Special to Hablame24.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser traveled to the San Luis Valley on Wednesday to get a close-up look at an 8-foot-high wire fence that’s pitted locals against a billionaire ranch owner.

How far the state’s top law enforcement official will step into the battle over the fence around the Cielo Vista Ranch is uncertain, but local residents were relieved to finally get the attention of the state government.

“There are fences and then there are fences,” Weiser said in a call to Hablame24 as he drove away from Costilla County. “As you compare what I call traditional or best-practice fences in their community with the fence being put around this ranch, they are quite different in kind.”

The wire-grid fence stretches about 20 miles of the perimeter of the ranch, which includes more than 100 square miles of juniper and piñon pine forest and about 20 peaks in the Sangre de Cristo range.

Construction of the fence stopped last fall after Costilla County commissioners won a court battle against ranch owner William Harrison, a Texas oil heir who purchased the ranch in 2017 after it was listed for $105 million. But the temporary injunction runs out in September. 

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Weiser vowed to work with county officials, reach out to Harrison and “figure out what I can do as attorney general to support the people who are hurting.” The feelings of local residents who attended a town hall meeting with Weiser on Wednesday were “visceral,” he said.

“The county has 1,000 people. Seventy people showed up,” he said. “This is during a work day. This is an extraordinary showing that I just witnessed.

“Because they are in a situation where the ranch owner is a billionaire, they are asking who is going to have our back? Are they going to be protected? I hope I was able to give them an outlet and send them a message that I’m here to listen.”

A tall fence separating Cielo Vista Ranch from the rest of the San Luis Valley
About 20 miles of tall fence borders the Cielo Vista Ranch east of San Luis. (Owen Woods, Alamosa Citizen)

The county and the landowner were ordered to participate in pretrial mediation to try to solve the fence fight, but that has yet to happen. The county has been gathering expert testimony on wildlife and erosion, Ben Doon, chief administrative officer for the county commissioners, told The Sun this week. Costilla County, among the poorest in the state, has spent about $115,000 so far dealing with the legal issues surrounding the fence, he said.

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The fence, which began rising four years ago, has separated wildlife from water sources and disrupted their migration patterns, say locals who are trying to permanently block its construction. They say they have watched deer and elk running in a panic, looking for a place to cross. The fence’s wire squares get smaller as the fence nears the ground, narrowing to 3.5-inch openings that make it difficult for small animals to squeeze through.

Construction of the fence, which included a 20-foot-wide bulldozed path through the forest, also has exacerbated erosion problems, sending runoff down canyons in the sand that are growing deeper, residents and county officials said.

Harrison, however, said the fence is to keep out trespassers who have entered his private property to dump trash and collect antlers, to fish illegally and ride ATVs. The fence also is to contain his herd of bison, he said.

Ancestors of San Luis Valley settlers, who arrived before Colorado was a state, have legal access to the land to gather firewood and graze their livestock. They call the land “La Sierra,” and their rights date back to the mid-1800s, when settlers each got a plot of desert with access to an acequia irrigation ditch.

Under the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant of 1844, they were allowed to go into the high country to harvest timber, hunt deer and elk, and graze their cattle and sheep.

The descendants of the original settlers have keys to nine gates through which they can enter the property, so Harrison is honoring the land grant, he previously told The Sun through his attorney.

Costilla County notified Cielo Vista Ranch of land use violations in 2022, but the fence building continued, according to local officials. In September 2023, county commissioners voted unanimously to enact a moratorium on all fences over 5 feet high. The ranch sued the county, claiming the moratorium was illegal.

The ranch lost in district court, where the judge granted a preliminary injunction against the fence in October 2023 and set the case for trial this fall.

State agencies were slow to get involved in the fence dispute. But in March, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s water quality division informed the ranch of “potential violations of the Colorado Water Quality Control Act” because the ranch had not gotten a permit before starting a construction project that might disrupt water flow.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife, meanwhile, said it doesn’t have jurisdiction over the fence, no matter if it’s disrupting wildlife. Counties are the authority on fence building, CPW officials said.

Type of Story: News

Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for Hablame24. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously worked...