FOXTON, Colo. - Priscilla Salazar has decades of memories from her family cabin in Buffalo Creek, about 40 miles west of Denver, but now the U.S. Forest Service wants her to tear her cabin down.
“I've raised all my children there; we had four children, plus three foster children, so we raised all seven of those kids out there in the cabin,” said Salazar, 78.
The fight with the federal agency began in the summer of 2005, when Salazar received a certified letter stating her cabin was on U.S. Forest Service property.
“I was angry, I was angry. How could they do that to us? “Salazar told CALL7 Investigator Keli Rabon.
Salazar and her husband, Alex, bought the cabin and the land in the early 1970’s and worked hard it make a place they could keep in the family for generations.
But tragedy hit the family when Alex was killed in the Buffalo Creek flooding back in 1996.
Salazar said her husband died while working on the cabin, trying to make improvements. Since then, she hasn’t been back and now overgrown trees block the view, and the cabin sits vacant. The home looks more like an abandoned shack.
“Except for the Forest Service, no one has ever said that no one owns it but us,” Salazar said.
County records show Salazar’s parcel is like an island, surrounded by a sea of land owned by Denver Water.
Denver Water Land May Be Involved Too
District Ranger John Hickenbottom, with Pike and San Isabel National Forest, told CALL7 that the Denver Water land next to Salazar’s was also surveyed incorrectly and it also belongs to the federal government.
Hickenbottom said the Forest Service isn’t pursuing Denver Water because there are no structures on the property.
A Denver Water spokesperson said the agency hasn’t received any letters or correspondence from the Forest Service regarding the land issue.
Forest Service: Our Survey Is Better Than Yours
Land deeds dating back to 1893 obtained by CALL7 showed the land was sold by the United States to a private land owner, who then divided into smaller parcels, under a measurement known as “metes and bounds,” a system used in the original 13 colonies.
Hickenbottom told CALL7 while Salazar had a legally and valid survey when she bought the property, the Forest Service uses a different system, which is considered more accurate.
“These days with service-quality GPS equipment, it’s far more likely that you can go back to that spot and use that GPS and get a pretty good estimate that you have a trespass issue,” Hickenbottom said.
He doesn’t know exactly how much of Salazar’s cabin is on federal land, but said its first survey showed all of the land was Forest Service property.
Hickenbottom says a re-survey by the Bureau of Land Management showed only 1/3 of Salazar’s parcel was on Forest Service land, with most of the cabin being on its property.
Hickenbottom said trespass issues aren’t uncommon, he told CALL7 there are 400 other cases in the Pike and San Isabel National Forest.
“The vast majority of cases are resolved fairly simply when we ask them to move your gate or could you move your fence, and it’s simply dealt with,” said Hickenbottom.
He said in the Salazar case it’s more complex, but said that she must tear down her cabin eventually or the Forest Service will tear it down and bill Salazar.
Salazar Must Continue To Pay All Property Taxes
Despite the dispute, Salazar must continue to pay all of the property taxes on the land and cabin, even the portion the U.S. Forest service is claiming it owns.
The Jefferson County Assessor’s office told CALL7 it received a letter from the Forest Service about the situation more than seven years ago, but no official claim has been made to its office about the property lines, so it must continue to tax Salazar.
“No owner has to notify us that they own a part of the property, but the fact is that if they’re claiming that in our records there’s an error, then we have to demonstrate that our records are in error, “said Jim Everson, Jefferson County Assessor.
The assessor said if the Forest Service can prove it actually owns the land, Everson would be interested in seeing the information. But so far, his office has not seen any proof.
The Assessor’s Office does not perform surveys for individual property owners; it relies on the surveys provided by property owners to determine taxes. Based on its current records, Everson says Salazar is the sole owner of the property.
“We’re always willing to change and really look forward to change things, if we can get better information,” said Everson.
Everson said Salazar would be responsible for the taxes until the Forest Service proved ownership of the land, and she would only be refunded two years of back taxes under Colorado law.