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The Mystery of Pai

He came. He saw. He bought a mountain. But can Lou Pai make peace with his neighbors?

The roots of the conflict stretch back to the 1840s, when the Republic of Mexico, eager to secure its northern frontier, awarded the million-acre Sangre de Cristo land grant to Narciso Beaubien and Stephen Luis Lee. Beaubien and Lee were killed in the Taos Revolt of 1847, and the land fell to Narciso's father, Carlos Beaubien, who picked up Lee's share for $100.

To entice settlers, Beaubien offered small grants of land while setting aside certain common areas for grazing, wood-gathering and other uses. Surviving documents are vague on the matter, but several historians and legal scholars say that la sierrawas without question one of the common areas.

"No one would have ever come here unless they had access to the mountain," says Maria Valdez, a local historian who has done extensive research on the land grants. Her husband is one of dozens of plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to restore local use rights to the Taylor Ranch. "That's what our lawyers have always argued. It's not just that we have used it by custom. There was actually a grant of legal rights."

The land became part of the United States following the Mexican-American War. Beaubien's title to the Sangre de Cristo grant was confirmed by Congress in 1860; four years later, his heirs sold their interest in the grant to William Gilpin, Colorado's first territorial governor, with the understanding that certain privileges of the existing settlers would be protected.

Unfortunately, the settlers' privileges weren't spelled out with regard to la sierra. By the time North Carolina lumber magnate Jack Taylor bought the land from some Denver businessmen in 1960, the locals' "use rights" had been reduced to an informal practice of dubious legality. Taylor was aware that the sellers had tolerated a little trespassing and poaching; in fact, his deed contained a caution that his title was possibly "subject to claims of the local people...to the right to pasturage, wood, and lumber and so-called settlements." But the price was such a bargain -- $500,000, less than seven dollars an acre -- that he figured he could handle any trouble that went with it.

He was wrong. Taylor's efforts to secure the ranch as his private domain triggered a feud with locals that went on for decades. Fences were erected, then cut. Bulldozers were shot full of holes. Rough treatment of trespassers was repaid with assaults on ranch employees.

Taylor complained bitterly that the law in Costilla County was less than diligent in protecting Anglo property rights. He fared better in the state and federal courts, which confirmed his ownership of the property and rejected claims based on Mexican law. But in many ways, it was the verdict of his neighbors that counted.

On the night of October 15, 1975, several bullets ripped through the roof of Taylor's bedroom on the ranch. One shattered his left ankle. He left Colorado with a limp and, for the rest of his life, ran the operation from his home in New Bern, North Carolina. The sniper was never caught.

After Jack Taylor's death in the late 1980s, a flurry of activity around the ranch began to raise new hopes among the locals that they might regain their use rights. Zachary Taylor, Jack's son, permitted various groups to use the land for picnics, wood-gathering and religious celebrations. But the limited access did little to arrest the decline of the county's traditional agrarian economy -- which, before the Taylor purchase, had depended on the mountain tract for summer pastures, wood for heat and building, even meat and fish for the dinner table. Losing the pastures forced many local ranchers to drastically reduce their herds or pack up altogether. Despite a growing appeal to tourists and retirees, Costilla remains among the state's poorest counties, notable for its almost complete absence of public lands.

Ten years ago, a state commission spearheaded by Ken Salazar -- then a lawyer in private practice, now Colorado's attorney general -- tried to purchase the Taylor Ranch, with the aim of transforming the property into a state park. The arrangement would have restored to locals some measure of their historic use rights, but the campaign was a rocky one, marked by public bickering among factions in San Luis over how the land would be managed. In 1994, Zach Taylor rejected the state's offer of $15 million, insisting that the logging possibilities made the ranch worth twice that much.

With the collapse of the state's negotiations, the remaining hope for access rested with a long-running lawsuit filed on behalf of the herederos -- local residents who are the sixth- and seventh-generation descendants of the Mexican settlers of Beaubien's land grant. The case has been kicked around the state judicial system since 1981; a few years ago, after a review ordered by the Colorado Supreme Court, Judge Gaspar Perricone threw out the locals' claims of use rights by treaty. The case is now back on appeal before the state supreme court, with a decision expected in the next few weeks.

"This case has been around for 21 years," notes Denver attorney Jeff Goldstein, who represents the plaintiffs. "It's been before a large number of judges. A lot of our clients have died."

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