Baca foreclosure may clear way for national park

Brief by Ed Quillen

Baca Ranch – June 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

CALL THIS THE “Mother of All Foreclosure Sales,” at least by the financial standards of Central Colorado. It’s scheduled for 10 a.m. May 30 in Saguache at the county courthouse. It’s for an $8 million debt, and it’s part of the process of expanding Great Sand Dunes National Monument into Great Sand Dunes National Park & Wildlife Refuge.

Most of that expansion involves the 100,000-acre Baca Ranch southeast of Moffat, one of the largest private parcels in Colorado. That part of the story starts in 1823 with a 500,000-acre Mexican land grant to Luis Maria Baca in the area of Las Vegas, N.M. After the Mexican War of 1846-48, the United States was obliged by treaty to honor the grant, but by then that area was full of squatters and settlers.

Rather than evict the settlers, the U.S. offered the Baca heirs five 100,000-acre tracts. They agreed, and the northernmost of these tracts — Luis Maria Baca Grant No. 4 — became the Baca Ranch in the San Luis Valley.

It has since passed through many owners, among them William Gilpin, first governor of Colorado Territory, and in the 1950s, Alfred Collins, who raised prize-winning Herefords.

The modern saga begins about 30 years ago when it was purchased by the Arizona Land & Cattle Co., which was controlled by Canadian oilman Maurice Strong. Strong’s wife, Hannah, envisioned a spiritual and metaphysical development in the Crestone area, and some of the land went to that.

He also attracted investors in American Water Development, Inc. The idea was to tap the deep confined aquifer under the northern San Luis Valley, and export the water at a profit. That plan was denied by the water court in Alamosa, and AWDI had to sell the ranch to pay the legal bills.

In 1995, Gary Boyce rounded up some new investors, and arranged to buy the Baca. He also had a water-development plan which differed in some substantial respects from AWDI’s (for instance, he offered surface water in Cotton and Pole creeks to make up for any losses that deep-aquifer pumping might have caused to neighboring ranches).

Boyce was just the managing partner, though. The actual purchase was made by Vaca Partners, which included Farallon Capital Management of San Francisco along with Yale University.

Vaca Partners then sold the ranch to Cabeza de Vaca Land and Cattle Co., and carried an $8 million note secured by the ranch. Boyce owns part of Cabeza — and so does Vaca Partners. Also there’s a New York venture capitalist, Peter Hornick, who’s in federal court to determine just how much, if any, of Cabeza he owns. AWDI is still involved, because it got promised a 10% royalty on any water sales in return for a lower purchase price.

If you’re not confused yet, well, we’ve all done our best.

At any rate, Saguache County District Judge Robert Ogburn ruled on May 8 Cabeza de Vaca owes $8 million, plus interest, to Vaca Partners. And there is the agreement reached in January to convey the property to the Nature Conservancy (and the state land board), so that they can in turn sell the property to the federal government by 2005. Part of it will become part of the Sand Dunes National Park, part will be a wildlife refuge, and the rest will go to the Forest Service.

For that to happen, though, there needs to be a clear title, and the May 30 foreclosure sale will likely turn out to be just a formality so that Vaca Partners has the only interest in the Baca Ranch.

WHILE THE OTHER PARTIES Like Hornick and AWDI settle their disputes, the ranch will be out of their picture and Vaca Partners will be the owner as a result of making the winning bid at the foreclosure.

That’s what Connie Trujillo assumes, anyway. She’s the Saguache County Treasurer, which means she’s also the public trustee in charge of foreclosure auctions. “In most foreclosures, there’s only one bidder — the holder of the note — and I suppose it will turn out that way this time,” she said.

That’s what Boyce assumes, too, although “it would make things really interesting if another bidder showed up.”

And even if the foreclosure goes through as planned on May 30, the foreclosed owners — Cabeza de Vaca — have 180 days to pay the auction price and redeem the property, since state law provides for that in the case of agricultural land like the Baca Ranch.

So the saga could be nearing an end, or just starting a new round. One person who’s benefited this time is Dean Coombs, publisher of the Saguache Crescent. The weekly newspaper usually runs four pages, but of late has also carried an immense legal notice (for the foreclosure sale) that would fill 78 Colorado Central pages.

That advertising bill ran to $17,000, Coombs said. “I thought they could get by with something shorter,” he said, “but I guess the lawyers wanted to be absolutely sure that they dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s, and that’s just fine by me.”

–Ed Quillen