The Mystery of Pai

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

Over the winter of 2000-'01 locals gaped in astonishment at the thick clouds of smoke billowing off the mountain. Pai's workers were burning large piles of dead wood left behind by the logging operations. To families who rely on wood stoves for heat, the bonfires seemed like an incredible waste. "They could have given that wood away, or even sold it by the cord," says one neighbor. "But they just burned it. Big piles, every day."

Ranch manager Barron says that Pai has continued the tradition of allowing locals onto the ranch for wood-gathering festivals, but the slash piles incinerated by his crews were "breeding grounds for pests and worms."

"We didn't have a choice about it," Barron says. "There's a lot of dead and downed stuff on the floor of the forest that we hope to get cleaned up. It would take a hundred years of woodfests to use that wood."

 
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.

Neighbors used to be able to hike, camp or lease grazing land on the ranch for a modest fee, but Pai has become much choosier about who is allowed on his land and for what purposes. For example, Culebra Peak is virtually off-limits to locals now. Western Properties has an ongoing arrangement with the Colorado Mountain Club to permit a small group of climbers to hike the peak each summer for a fee, with priority awarded to those attempting to complete a tour of all 54 of the state's fourteeners. But the club has few members in Costilla County, where residents' favorite mountain hike is the one that's now denied to them.

The ranch doesn't host many big-ticket, trophy game hunts anymore -- the Colorado Division of Wildlife dropped Taylor's operation from its ranching-for-wildlife program a few years ago. But the property continues to attract a few well-heeled hunting parties every fall; a popular elk-hunting video for bow hunters, sold in Wal-Mart stores, was partially filmed there. At the same time, local hunters say that Pai's crews roam the county roads at daybreak during hunting season, spooking elk and making them jump the fence back onto Pai's property, depriving the locals of game.

"They were coming down there on ATVs, shooting at the elk and herding them back on the ranch," says nineteen-year-old Charles Mondragón, who encountered Pai's elk-herders during the last two hunting seasons. Complaints to the game warden and to Pai employees went nowhere, he adds: "Every time you confront them, they deny they're doing it."

Another local resident claims he chased down a ranch foreman to complain about the practice in 1999. "I told him this wasn't appropriate, trying to keep elk from hunters who were just trying to put meat on the table," this resident says. "There are thousands of elk up there, but they come down in the winter for food. They should be feeding them in winter if they want to keep them up there."

Barron denies that his employees are scaring elk or seeking to discourage licensed hunters from the area. "I've heard that, and I've tried to get to the bottom of it," he says. "But when you face those folks, they get very general about [the allegations]. We have a very professional staff. There's no reason to do that."

County officials say there hasn't been much communication from Pai's lieutenants regarding activities on the ranch. Indeed, the local bureaucrats have been largely ignored by the ranch's operators. Last fall, avid readers of county legal notices were amused to discover that several parcels of land acquired by Western Properties, Jaroso Creek and related Pai entities were listed on the delinquent tax rolls. How could a man who made tens of millions of dollars in a single day of stock sales be $13,000 behind in his property taxes? (Pai attorney Keith Tooley says he's unaware of any reported tax delinquency.)

The county has also wrangled with Pai's attorneys over whether their client failed to obtain required permits before constructing roads and fences and engaging in other kinds of excavation, including digging sizable ponds and altering streambeds. However, the county planning office has had so much turnover in recent years that the current land-use administrator, Nathan Sanchez, has elected to honor earlier agreements with the ranch that allowed projects there to proceed without some permits.

"There was a lack of communication going on," Sanchez says. "If we contact them, they seem to be willing to work with us. Of course, we would like for them to come in before they start building next time."

With so little paperwork filed with the county to clarify the matter, speculation about Pai's supposedly grand development schemes spread unabated. News of the ponds fueled rumors that water would be diverted from the major streams, impounded and then sold through the auspices of Azurix, a private water-marketing company partly owned by Enron. Pai's eagerness to purchase land and water rights belonging to some of his neighbors set off more alarm bells, prompting Father Pat Valdez, the influential parish priest in San Luis, to urge his flock from the altar not to sell their land without considering what sort of legacy they might leave their children.

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