illustration of someone holding a mountain in their hands
(Illustration: Liam Eisenberg)
Sundog’s Almanac of Ethical Answers

Should You Be Able to Own a Mountain?

And what about charging people to climb that mountain? Outside’s ethics guru weighs in.

illustration of someone holding a mountain in their hands
Liam Eisenberg

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Dear Sundog: When I drive north from Santa Fe through the San Luis Valley, there’s this range that always catches my eye. South of Blanca Peak, north of the Latirs, clearly high elevation and with what looks like very skiable terrain. Curious, some friends and I pulled the region up on Gaia and were surprised to find out that it’s privately owned. The highest point in the region is Culebra, a fourteener, and you have to pay $150 to climb it, and it’s owned by some Texas oilman who definitely doesn’t need the money. There’s another private Colorado fourteener, Mount Bross, that is illegal to summit (or at least used to be), and there are ranches in northern New Mexico bigger than national parks that encompass lower peaks and close off access to entire stretches of river. My question is: Should you be able to own a mountain? What does that even mean?” —Freedom of the Hills

Dear Freedom: We are rightly offended by people, especially Texans, owning mountains.

Sundog hauled his own carcass to the top of Culebra Peak some years back, though I recall the fee was more like $50 back then. It’s part of “Cielo Vista Ranch,” a spread of more than 83,000 acres along 23 miles of ridgeline in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. In addition to the fourteener, it’s got 17 unique peaks above 13,000 feet. “One of the largest, most pristine, & distinctive private properties in North America,” gushed the listing agent when it was offered for sale in 2017. Price: $105 million.

The land was purchased by a thirtysomething Houston billionaire, William Bruce Harrison, who made his fortune the old-fashioned way: he inherited it. A brief, unhappy browse of Cielo Vista Ranch’s website stole 30 minutes of Sundog’s time on Earth that he shall never regain. Despite green buzzwords like “stewardship” and “preservation,” it left me with a deep chill as to what the privatization of public lands might look like. The “ranch”—a more accurate word might be “estate”—advertises itself in a series of smarmy dick-waving superlatives: “Do you desire the trophy of a lifetime?” “The highest privately-owned peak in the world,” “…opens its gates to hikers anticipating an experience that no public land can offer.” Each climber must make a reservation and pay the $150 fee. Those who fail to arrive between 6:00 and 6:15 A.M. the day of their climb forfeit their pass.

While there is little we common people can do about aristocrats posing as environmentalists, it’s a stark reminder of the devil’s bargain that conservationists make when they laud the efforts of land barons to save the buffalo or draw up easements on their property: we requested nature, we got feudalism.

What’s more, the ranch website’s history tab casually asserts that Culebra Peak was in fact a part of the Republic of Texas, a claim as dubious now as it was in 1836 when the fledgling Texas congress made it. Mexico flatly denied the claim, and Texas made no successful effort to invade, colonize, or defend the land which extended all the way north to present-day Wyoming. Texans, bless their little hearts: always believing themselves a bit larger than they really are. Such specious revisionism comes as no surprise to anyone who has skied at Steamboat or Taos amidst the snowplow stampede of straight-legged Joe Bucks in Mossy Oak who seem to think they, well, own the place.

(In a peculiar omission, Cielo Vista’s burnished history of Texas makes little mention of the historical factor that led to its successful war for independence from Mexico and its failed war for independence from the USA: white people’s insistence on their divine right to own Black people. But that, I suppose, is beyond the scope of today’s column.)

As you mention, Freedom, Culebra is not the only privately held fourteener. A handful of them are, mostly descending from mining claims, but most allow public access. The notable exception is Mount Bross, whose owners have closed the peak for more than a decade because of liability issues.

Is it ethical to own a mountain? In Sundog’s opinion, not at all. But American capitalism does not distinguish between mountain and valley, cliffs and plains. Land is land, and you can own it.

We in the West are a bit spoiled: we’re so used to mountains on public land that we’re shocked to find one that isn’t. That’s not the case on the other side of the Mississippi, where many mountains were grabbed around the turn of the 20th century, before the concept of public lands came to be. Such lower, rounder, slumpier mountains are not only owned, but they regularly have their tops removed by massive machines in order to suck the coal beneath, a practice that will heap shame on America for centuries, the way we heap shame on other supposedly great civilizations—the Romans for their throwing Christians to the lions, the Mayans for sacrificing virgins to the gods.

But back to Culebra. What about the ethics of charging money to climb it? It appears that the owners sell 60 permits per weekend, so in the peak summer season they are grossing around $36,000 per month. That may be a lot for you and me, but certainly doesn’t make a large difference to the billionaire owners. Odious, sure, but preferable, ethically, to banning hikers altogether.

The irony, I suppose, is that Culebra’s popularity rests entirely on the utterly arbitrary yardstick that makes it one of the 53 peaks required to bag all of Colorado’s fourteeners. Culebra is 14,053 feet high. If America used the metric system, the mountain’s unsexy height of 4,283 meters would land it on zero bucket lists.

Sundog likes to imagine an earthquake that crumbles 54 feet from the top of Culebra. Mountaineers could remove one notch from their belt and spare the indignity of contributing to a billionaire’s inheritance. Rich boys could continue to play cowboy. The mountain would be anonymous, abandoned by the box-checkers, left to the wanderers: the way, Sundog believes, all mountains were intended.

Trending on Outside Online