Com­merce, tra­di­tion clash in land wars

Old West-style con­flict pits ranch widow against oil com­pany with civil law­suit PICEANCE CREEK» The fren­zied cows cir­cled reck­lessly in a dust cloud, des­per­ately search­ing for their miss­ing calves amid a tan­gled maze of sage­brush on a moun­tain slope.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Kirk Mitchell

Their high-pitched wails were like noth­ing Su­san Robin­son had ever heard in five decades of work­ing her moun­tain ranch in Rio Blanco County, and the piti­ful bel­low­ing left her fright­ened and nau­seous.

Boot prints in the dirt told her what she had al­ready sus­pected: Some­one had stam­peded her prime Black An­gus cat­tle through a barbed-wire fence, driv­ing them away from wind­mill-fed wa­ter holes and leav­ing them parched, in­jured and sep­a­rated.

It was the lat­est in a se­ries of what Robin­son con­sid­ers cruel provocations aimed at forc­ing her and her live­stock off land the fam­ily has ranched for more than a cen­tury.

The Robin­sons have used barbed wire, guns and gump­tion to pro­tect their land and live­stock since the early 1910s, when Joseph Robin­son drove thou­sands of sheep from Para­guna, Utah, to Ri­fle. They sur­vived the sheep and cat­tle wars, the De­pres­sion and count­less tres­passers.

But now the fam­ily faces a new ad­ver­sary, one with deep pock­ets, a high-pow- ered Den­ver law firm and a de­ter­mi­na­tion to ex­plore and drill be­neath the pas­ture­land.

This clash be­tween oil­men and ranch­ers could have been torn from the pages of a Zane Grey novel, but it re­flects the present-day con­flicts be­tween com­merce and tra­di­tion as oil and gas operations ex­pand across Colorado. It pits a sub­sidiary of Cono­coPhillips Co., head­quar­tered in Texas, against Robin­son, a soft­spo­ken, 69-year-old widow and grand­mother who stands 5-foot-2 and — when she re­mem­bers — car­ries the pis­tol one of her four adult chil­dren gave her for pro­tec­tion on the sprawl­ing ranch.

Al­though this land war is play­ing out along dusty canyon ar­royos, its res­o­lu­tion prob­a­bly will come in a fed­eral mag­is­trate court­room in Grand Junc­tion. Robin­son’s at­tor­neys filed a civil law­suit

in June in U.S. District Court in Den­ver. A trial will con­firm or deny her own­er­ship of the piece of land for which she has no deed or ti­tle.

Land wars

The prop­erty war be­gan a few weeks af­ter the death last year of Larry Robin­son, Su­san’s hus­band, a brawny rancher who had al­ways han­dled tres­passers with a com­mand­ing voice and the un­spo­ken threat of a ri­fle stick­ing out of his hors­esad­dle scab­bard.

Su­san lives alone now in a spa­cious log cabin tim­bered from mam­moth pine trunks on their prop­erty that is dec­o­rated with the skins and stuffed car­casses of coy­otes and moun­tain lions trapped or shot af­ter slaugh­ter­ing or threat­en­ing Robin­son sheep.

Four gen­er­a­tions of Robin­sons have ranched 560 acres of land 20 miles north of Ri­fle. Robin­son also claims the ranch in­cludes 2,535 acres (nearly 4 square miles) of foothills and canyons a few miles south of their deeded prop­erty. Tens of thou­sands of Robin­son sheep and cat­tle car­ry­ing the fam­ily brand have pas­tured up and down the wind­ing canyons and grassy fields on the Piceance basin over the years. Three creaky wind­mills erected by the Robin­son clan decades ago still draw spits and bursts of wa­ter through a pipe ex­tend­ing deep be­neath the ground and up into ponds and rusty steel wa­ter­ing troughs. There are more than a dozen catch ponds scat­tered through the lands ac­ces­si­ble by a ma­trix of dirt roads con­structed and main­tained by the Robin­sons.

For 14 years, the Robin­sons paid for a graz­ing per­mit from the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment. But in 1986, The Oil Shale Corp. of Mid­land, Texas (TOSCO), a Cono­coPhillips sub­sidiary, ac­quired the 2,535 acres along with thou­sands of other acres of land.

“It’s our land. It’s not theirs. It be­longs to us,” Robin­son said. “It’s all about money to them. I’m sure.”

Robin­son now hopes to ac­quire ti­tle to the con­tested 2,535 acres through a Colorado statute based on a le­gal con­cept rooted in English com­mon law called “ad­verse pos­ses­sion.” It re­quires her to prove her pos­ses­sion of the prop­erty has been “hos­tile, ac­tual, ex­clu­sive, ad­verse, un­der a claim of right, and un­in­ter­rupted” for 18 years, said Glen­wood Springs at­tor­ney David McConaughy, who de­fends her in­ter­ests along with Avon at­tor­ney Ja­son Buck­ley.

Her at­tor­neys also are re­ly­ing on a se­cond le­gal the­ory, a pre­scrip­tive ease­ment, which would al­low Robin­son to con­tinue lim­ited use of the land for wa­ter­ing and graz­ing.

“TOSCO came back with both bar­rels blaz­ing,” said McConaughy, re­fer­ring to its hir­ing of Colorado’s largest law firm, Hol­land and Hart.

TOSCO’s at­tor­neys, Christo­pher Chris­man and Kurt Tyler, wrote in their brief that Robin­son can’t even ar­tic­u­late the el­e­ments of ad­verse pos­ses­sion, let alone prove them. The brief claims the oil com­pany al­lowed the Robin­sons to graze their live­stock on the land be­tween 1986 and 2016.

TOSCO has asked Mag­is­trate Judge Gor­don Gal- lagher to dis­miss Robin­son’s law­suit. It says in the 30 years that TOSCO al­lowed Robin­son cat­tle to graze on the land, fam­ily mem­bers never no­ti­fied the com­pany that they owned the land.

Mean­time, TOSCO built a pipe­line and did some ex­ploratory drilling on the prop­erty, and the Robin­sons never told them to leave, the com­pany mo­tion says. Joint pos­ses­sion thwarts Robin­son’s ad­verse pos­ses­sion claim, which must be ex­clu­sive, it ar­gues.

“The mere con­tin­u­a­tion of her pre­vi­ous graz­ing prac­tices is sim­ply not suf­fi­cient to es­tab­lish an ad­verse pos­ses­sion or pre­scrip­tive ease­ment claim,” the mo­tion says.

TOSCO’s mo­tion says Robin­son’s ad­verse-pos­ses­sion claim fails be­cause she hasn’t been ad­verse at all.

The Robin­sons ar­gue they have been ad­verse, hos­tile and have chased peo­ple off the land for more than just over the past 18 years.

When Robin­son drives her pickup truck into Ri­fle, she of­ten stops in at the Shooter’s Grill for a chili burger. On the wall is a metal sign that aptly re­flects com­mu­nity sen­ti­ment: “Prayer is the best way to meet the Lord; Tres­pass­ing is faster.”

She traces the land bat­tles all the way back to Joseph Robin­son, her late hus­band’s grand­fa­ther.

“They moved right in the mid­dle of the sheep and cat­tle war. Even though he was 6-feet-8 he didn’t leave it to chance. He had his gun­slinger, so they (cat­tle­men) didn’t bother him. No­body tres­passed on him,” Robin­son said.

“Larry was a be­liever that noth­ing was gray. It was black or white, right or wrong. Tres­pass­ing was wrong. No­body pushed him around,” Robin­son said.

Sur­vival

Robin­son ar­rived on the ranch in De­cem­ber 1965, shortly af­ter her mar­riage to Larry. It was 28 de­grees be­low zero the first night.

“I thought I’d died and gone to hell,” she said. She has been liv­ing here ever since then.

“There’s a peace and tran­quil­ity here that you can’t find any­where else on earth,” she said. Years ago when oil-com­pany trus­tees of­fered Robin­son and her hus­band $4 mil­lion for the ranch, the cou­ple turned them down.

But in 1999, Larry suf­fered a heart con­di­tion, which sapped his en­ergy. He died on Feb. 22, 2016. He was 70.

Dur­ing calv­ing sea­son not long af­ter, when Robin­son and her daugh­ter brought scores of calves into the world amid bit­ter cold, a woman showed up at her cabin’s doorstep.

The TOSCO em­ployee wanted Robin­son to sign a lease agree­ment.

“I was dead tired and I was pretty sure we owned all of this land,” Robin­son said. “I asked her, ‘Were you aware my hus­band died re­cently?’ The TOSCO em­ployee replied, “‘Oh, yeah, sorry.’ She was pretty brassy about it.”

Robin­son said that in the 31 years TOSCO claimed the land, she had never seen oil­men. No wells pump oil on the land. She re­fused to sign the lease and called an at­tor­ney. Later, she said, she learned that TOSCO had ac­quired the land from the BLM through a con­tro­ver­sial 1800s min­ing law for $2.50 an acre.

“TOSCO ac­quired ti­tle to the sur­face land from the BLM along with min­ing claims in the area,” Cono­coPhillips spokes­woman Davy Kong said in a state­ment. She de­clined to di­vulge the cost of the sale.

BLM spokesman Steven Hall said he couldn’t con­firm that the TOSCO land was ac­quired in 1986 along with tens of thou­sands of acres through the 1872 fed­eral min­ing law, but added that it is “cer­tainly likely.” Oil shale com­pa­nies bought min­ing claims and then con­verted the acreage into pri­vate prop­erty through a se­ries of law­suits in the 1980s, he said.

In early June this year, Robin­son went to check on her cat­tle and found a fence with no gate that had been built di­rectly across the road and up steep canyon walls on both sides.

“I was fenced out of my own prop­erty,” she said. “They openly ad­mit­ted they built the fence to force me to sign the lease.”

A few days later an ac­quain­tance told her he saw her cat­tle on a dry plateau with no wa­ter. She drove up the canyon and heard loud bel­low­ing be­fore she saw her cat­tle.

“The calves’ eyes were bug­ging out. I brought all those ba­bies into the world. Some of them have been or­phaned from their mothers. I haven’t been able to find all of them,” Robin­son said. She added that with­out wa­ter, her cat­tle could have died. Many were in­jured and had lost weight.

TOSCO claims its em­ploy­ees gave Robin­son nu­mer­ous no­tices be­fore build­ing fences. Her ranch­ing neigh­bors signed iden­ti­cal leases with­out complaint, ac­cord­ing to Kong’s state­ment.

“... Due to her re­fusal to sign a lease, we no­ti­fied her months ago that TOSCO would ex­clude her and her cat­tle from the prop­erty. This no­tice was given far in ad­vance so that she would have ad­e­quate time to make other ar­range­ments for her cat­tle. Ms. Robin­son in­stead chose to re­lease her cat­tle onto the TOSCO prop­erty be­fore a fence could be com­pleted.

“In an ef­fort to en­sure that no cat­tle are harmed by the fence, TOSCO has in­ten­tion­ally left gaps in the fence to al­low the cat­tle to move freely for the re­main­der of this year’s graz­ing sea­son. Fur­ther­more, TOSCO em­ploy­ees and con­trac­tors have nei­ther herded the cat­tle nor in­ter­fered with them,” the writ­ten state­ment says.

The same day that Robin­son’s cat­tle stam­peded she saw two of TOSCO’s fence builders and asked them if they were re­spon­si­ble. They de­nied it, but one walked be­hind a truck, hid­ing his boots.

“It was like the wild west in a way. It was all just ha­rass­ment,” Robin­son said.

He­len H. Richard­son, The Den­ver Post

Su­san Robin­son checks the wa­ter flow at a wind­mill on her ranch near Ri­fle. Robin­son and a sub­sidiary of Cono­coPhillips Co. are in a le­gal battle over land that her fam­ily has ranched for decades.

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