The Mystery of Pai

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

But Goldstein says he's encouraged by some of the rulings that have been made on the case over the years, even as the underlying claim has been repeatedly denied. Judge Perricone, for example, found that the promise of access to the mountain tract was a key factor in the original settlement of the area and that the local ranchers had used the land for a hundred years without interruption. "How can you use something for a hundred years and not have a right to it?" Goldstein asks.

The persistence of the lawsuit bedeviled Zach Taylor's attempts to market the ranch; it may also have driven down his asking price. Shortly after he turned down the state's proposal, Taylor entered into a logging contract with a major timber company. The intensive tree-cutting that followed brought protests by environmental groups to his gates, objections from water users downstream -- and a court challenge from Lou Pai. After acquiring the southern third of the ranch in 1997, Pai sued Taylor, claiming that he'd misrepresented the extent of the logging and the damage that was being done to his land.

Pai won a temporary injunction halting the logging. Only days before the suit was scheduled to go to trial, Taylor agreed to sell him the rest of the ranch. (The reported purchase price for the entire place, around $23 million, fell neatly between Taylor's previous asking price and the amount the state had offered before the logging began.) Pai's attorneys subsequently obtained a second injunction and proceeded to buy out the remaining logging contracts.

Jay Bevenour
This land is my land: The Taylor property includes 
Culebra Peak, one of Colorado's prized fourteeners.
photo courtesy of La Sierra
This land is my land: The Taylor property includes Culebra Peak, one of Colorado's prized fourteeners.

For a brief moment, putting a stop to the timber business made Pai appear as a potential savior to some of the factions in Costilla County. But that image soured quickly. Karl Hess, a policy consultant for the U.S. Department of Interior, had been working with Taylor on a plan that would have provided local ranchers with more access to the property and a role in helping to manage and conserve its resources. He was hopeful that Pai would pursue a similar course, but meetings with Pai's representatives, including ranch manager Jim Barron, soon disabused him of that notion.

"I felt very uneasy working with them and the degree of secrecy they had," Hess recalls. "When we met with Barron, he said, 'If you're going to work with us, you can never use the name Lou Pai again. Lou Pai is just a minor figure in this; he's not the owner of this whole thing.' I thought that was absurd. We knew exactly who Lou Pai was. Lou Pai came out there all the time; he was deeply involved. But Barron wanted to keep his profile very low, and he resented that we'd mentioned to people that [Pai] was the buyer."

Hess adds, "The philosophy they had for dealing with the local community was counterproductive, I think. I can only paraphrase, but one thing Jim Barron said to us was something like, 'Every Christmas we'll give trinkets to kids, and that will make everyone happy.'

"We were trying to attack the problem at its heart. We felt the future of the ranch lay in creating a community resource bank. It became clear that they weren't really interested in the community-based approaches we were taking."

Pai's approach was a bit more blunt. Teams of surveyors re-examined the property and required some neighbors to prove their boundaries, at their own expense; in a few cases, the neighbors lost acreage that had been in their families for generations. Construction crews cut a swath through trees and vegetation to build a more secure fence line. Ranch manager Barron says the crews merely replaced fences that hadn't been maintained, but others insist that Pai's workers have added fences where none had been before.

It was enough to make locals nostalgic for the previous regime. Even at the height of their conflicts with Jack Taylor, people had found ways to get to la sierra -- to bribe, wheedle, pay, charm or simply skulk their way onto the property. The fence and the constant patrols made it clear that that era was over.

"With Taylor, there was still some negotiating at the local level," says Maria Valdez. "He was an absentee landowner, and his crew -- well, people could barter their way in. The 'no trespassing' edict was not uniformly enforced. Lou Pai did something that Taylor could never have done; he enclosed the commons. He put a fence in back as well as in front and secured the perimeter.

"Taylor did not have this kind of money, which is why he allowed people to hike up there and hunt and so on. There was always a way to break that fence line. Lou Pai stopped that."

His neighbors soon discovered that Pai's wealth bought him more than good fences and security teams. With his attorneys, contacts and penchant for secrecy, he seemed to operate on a different plane than any other landowner in the county, governed by a separate set of rules.

County officials had gone to federal court to try to stop the logging on the Taylor Ranch, concerned about the effect on the watershed. They were rebuffed. Lou Pai went to another federal judge and obtained an injunction with ease. As a private property owner, he had clout the county clearly did not have. His ability to post a $750,000 bond to protect the logging company from losses didn't hurt, either.

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