MAYACAMAS MOUNTAINS, Calif. -- A group of California families are accusing the National Audubon Society of whiting out parts of maps to swindle them out of their best land. This is property that in some cases has been in the families' hands since the 1920s.
The Cervieres brothers, immigrants from France, came to California in 1895. By 1924 they had money to buy beautiful plots of land high up in the Mayacamas Mountains, towering over Sonoma wine country in northern California.
They wanted a place of retreat and refuge for what they hoped would someday be a large and extended family of Cervieres. Their descendants became five families who bought even more land in the Pine Flat area of these mountains.
And they did form a tradition across the decades of enjoying almost every major family occasion, summers and holidays in this mountain paradise. They built five homes they collectively dubbed "the ranch."
"The ranch was like the lifeblood, the glue that held the family together," said Lea Raynal, now one of the extended family's matriarchs.
But a fire swept through in 2004 and burned down three of the houses.
"Torched this whole thing," Lea's son Mike Raynal said, looking up at a bare chimney that's all that's left of one home. "We lost everything."
Family members felt horrible but fanned hope by deciding to rebuild as quickly as possible.
Then came another devastating blow from a surprising source. A neighbor had bequeathed thousands of acres next door to the National Audubon Society, best known for its love of birds and conservation.
To rebuild, the families would need to upgrade the roads leading across Audubon land to accommodate their heavy construction equipment.
But after decades of everyone sharing these roads, Audubon said no and then hit the families with yet another bombshell: It said it had proof their very best acres, the flat ones where their houses had been, were actually Audubon land.
"It was like being hit in the stomach, the wind knocked out of you," Lea recalled.
Audubon representatives showed the family survey maps that appeared to bolster Audubon's claim, maps that years later family members would find had parts whited out by Audubon.
According to the family's lawyer Peter Prows, the reps gave them an ultimatum: "We're not going to let you rebuild your homes unless you agree to the boundary as we're claiming it to be on our drawings."
Mike's brother, Phil Raynal, said that would have pushed family members' new houses "approximately 300 yards up the hill, way up in an upper meadow - virtually impossible to build on."
"This is the only flat area," he said, pointing to the area around him where their houses had been.
Prows said Audubon then informed the families, "If you don't agree, we're going to go out and build a fence on that line, and if you try to interfere, we're going to call the police."
Legal Battle Begins
In court documents later, Audubon insisted it believed its claim that it truly owned the best acres of its next-door neighbors.
And since it was legally bound to preserve the wilderness acres bequeathed it, the company said it couldn't just hand those acres back to the families if it really owned them.
Audubon said it held meetings and bent over backwards to work out a deal with the families.
But here's what Phil heard from an Audubon representative at one of those meetings: "This property has never, ever been yours. Get over it."
"That haunts me. I tell you what, that haunts me every day," he said.
Phil and his family accuse Audubon of simply coveting their land.
"It really bothers me that they'd come up here and try to take something that's ours," Phil's young son Ryan said.
So the families decided to fight, with Mike and Phil Raynal leading the way. They threw themselves into a years-long effort to prove the ancient boundaries were correct and their land was indeed theirs, not Audubon's.
A Costly Fight
Their efforts cost them and their families hundreds of thousands of dollars across several years, and much more than just money but "thousands and thousands and countless hours," Phil said, shaking his head.
The brothers for years cut their way through rugged brush to find the original surveyors' landmarks, facing rattlesnakes, ticks, poison ivy, and exhaustion.
They both already had full-time jobs. This fight became another one. Mike's daughter Danielle feels it cost her her father.
"I've lost a father pretty much," she said. "Me and my dad were very close, and it's been hard. We've all drifted apart."
Some family members were not only spending every spare hour fighting to prove Audubon wrong. But while all this was working its way through the legal system, the families couldn't rebuild and were cut off from their piece of paradise and all those family gatherings like they'd had for decades.
"You have family reunions. You're always having holidays," Danielle remembered as she recalled how the five families would spend months of each year together on the ranch.
"And then it's just an abrupt stop," she said.
"Everybody getting together. It was just absolutely amazing," Danielle's mother Carin Raynal recalled. "And this whole debacle has just torn all of it apart."
Another family member, Bruce Young, testified in a sworn declaration.
"There's no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the emotional stress and aggravation to which Audubon subjected me is the cause and underlying reason for the three strokes I have suffered and survived," he said.
'White Out' Gate
Then another stunning surprise in 2010 after years of legal wrangling: Audubon caved and said it would accept the original property lines and let the families use the roads unimpeded.
"They completely capitulated," Prows stated.
No one outside of Audubon knows why this capitulation, but one more shock was ahead. In 2012, the families' lawyers discovered with a subpoena that at the start of all this, Audubon had held back from family members some of the surveying maps it had commissioned.
They had also altered the maps they presented to prove Audubon's claim.
"Audubon had actually doctored the drawings that it showed to our clients," Prows said. "It took white out, and we have emails from Audubon's very top people talking about putting white-out on the maps - removing the lines that its surveyors had put on the maps that Audubon didn't like, showing that the boundary really was in the right place all along."
This screamed lies and coverup to the families.
"We actually call it 'White Out Gate' now," Phil said.
He still gets mad thinking of those thousands of hours he and Mike spent researching, gathering documents, combing through the thick brush on their land.
"Really what sunk in was all those years - seven, eight years of hard work when they knew from day one this was never their property. Ever! They knew it," Phil fumed.
"I couldn't believe anybody would do that," Mike Raynal said. "I wouldn't do that to another human being, period."
A Bid for Restitution
Now the families are suing for fraud. Audubon admitted in court documents it didn't give them all the surveyor's maps but said that was because not all were relevant. It said it did white out lines on the maps but only lines it said were extraneous.
Audubon calls this lawsuit frivolous, demanding the families pay its legal bills.
Family members refuse to give an inch because all these years of legal war have certainly cost them.
"It's affected everybody mentally, physically, emotionally," Carin Raynal said.
When CBN News asked repeatedly for an interview or written comments, Audubon suggested researching the court documents and would only give the following mission statement:
"Audubon is fully committed to its mission as a non-profit organization dedicated to faithful care of the earth. We believe that every person on earth is a steward of land, air, water and wildlife. We believe that safeguarding America's great natural heritage builds a better world for future generations, preserves our shared quality of life, and fosters a healthier environment for all of us."
Lea Raynal summed up her family's feelings about Audubon: "They came in and stirred up all this mess, and we're left with nothing."