Old West-style land war in Colorado Rockies pits ranch widow against oil company

 

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.

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-powered Denver law firm and a determination to explore and drill beneath the pastureland.

  • Colorado rancher Susan Robinson checks the ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    Colorado rancher Susan Robinson checks the water flow at one of her old wind mills on her ranch June 28, 2017 near Rifle. Her windmills have been in place for over 75 years and still draw much needed water for her cattle. Robinson and a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips Co. are embroiled in a legal battle over who owns 2,535 acres of land that her family has ranched for more than a century.

  • Longtime Colorado rancher Susan Robinson, with ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    Longtime Colorado rancher Susan Robinson, with her loyal dog Apache by her side, tends to her chickens on her ranch June 28, 2017, near Rifle. Robinson and a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips Co. are embroiled in a legal battle over who owns 2,535 acres of land that her family has ranched for more than a century.

  • Longtime Colorado rancher Susan Robinson, with ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    Longtime Colorado rancher Susan Robinson, with her loyal dog Apache by her side, navigates a bridge of wood, while she does chores by herself on her ranch June 28, 2017, near Rifle. Robinson and a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips Co. are embroiled in a legal battle over who owns 2,535 acres of land that her family has ranched for more than a century.

  • A big rig rumbles past rancher ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    A big rig rumbles past rancher Susan Robinson and her dog Apache as she walks back to her ranch on June 28, 2017, near Rifle. Robinson and a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips Co. are embroiled in a legal battle over who owns 2,535 acres of land that her family has ranched for more than a century.

  • Big rigs carrying oil and gas ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    Big rigs carrying oil and gas rumble through the quiet valley near the property of rancher Susan Robinson on June 28, 2017 outside Rifle. Robinson and a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips Co. are embroiled in a legal battle over who owns 2,535 acres of land that her family has ranched for more than a century.

  • Apache, a dog belonging to longtime ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    Apache, a dog belonging to longtime Colorado rancher Susan Robinson, sits in the back of the truck, while Robinson drives to place salt licks out for her cattle on June 28, 2017, near Rifle. Robinson and a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips Co. are embroiled in a legal battle over who owns 2,535 acres of land that her family has ranched for more than a century.

  • A line of fencing that was ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    A line of fencing that was recently erected on disputed land, seen here June 28, 2017, near Rifle. Longtime rancher Susan Robinson and a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips Co. are embroiled in a legal battle over who owns 2,535 acres of land that her family has ranched for more than a century.

  • Colorado rancher Susan Robinson checks the ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    Colorado rancher Susan Robinson checks the water flow at one of her old wind mills on her ranch on June 28, 2017 near Rifle. Her windmills have been in place for over 75 years and still draw much needed water for her cattle. Robinson and a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips Co. are embroiled in a legal battle over who owns 2,535 acres of land that her family has ranched for more than a century.

  • Cattle belonging to longtime rancher Susan ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    Cattle belonging to longtime rancher Susan Robinson drink at a watering hole June 28, 2017 near Rifle. Robinson and a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips Co. are embroiled in a legal battle over who owns 2,535 acres of land that her family has ranched for more than a century.

  • Longtime rancher Susan Robinson tends to ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    Longtime rancher Susan Robinson tends to her cattle at a watering hole on June 28, 2017 near Rifle. Robinson and a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips Co. are embroiled in a legal battle over who owns 2,535 acres of land that her family has ranched for more than a century.

  • The sun sets on the property ...

    Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

    The sun sets on the property of rancher Susan Robinson on June 28, 2017, near Rifle. Robinson and a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips Co. are embroiled in a legal battle over who owns 2,535 acres of land that her family has ranched for more than a century.

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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-feet-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 likely 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.

This is an old family photo ...
A family photo of Susan Robinson and her late husband Larry on their ranch north of Rifle.

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 horse-saddle 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 Gallagher 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.

This is an old family photo ...
An old family photo of Susan Robinson and her late husband Larry on their ranch north of Rifle. Susan and Larry worked the ranch for over 50 years following in the footsteps of his grandfather JM and father Howard. The ranch has been in the family for over 100 years.

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.

Longtime Colorado rancher Susan Robinson leans on the saddle belonging to her late-husband Larry inside her home on her ranch June 28, 2017 near Rifle.
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Longtime Colorado rancher Susan Robinson leans on the saddle belonging to her late-husband Larry inside her home on her ranch June 28, 2017 near Rifle.

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,” ConnocoPhillips 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.

Cattle belonging to longtime rancher Susan Robinson drink at a watering hole on June 28, 2017 near Rifle.
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Cattle belonging to longtime rancher Susan Robinson drink at a watering hole on June 28, 2017 near Rifle.

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.

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