By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Barron says the rumor mill has badly distorted Pai's actual intentions. The ponds were built to improve the habitat for cutthroat trout, he says, but the ranch isn't using any more water than before and has no plans for water export, a commercial fishery or any other drastic development. The land purchases were part of a plan to acquire "some hay ground," and most of the purchases involved properties that were already on the market. The ranch manager denies any schemes for mining or gas exploration or any other hidden agendas.
"Anytime anyone wants to come on the ranch, we'll take them in there and show them whatever they want," Barron says. But he quickly qualifies the invitation; some county residents, he explains, are not allowed on the ranch because of their past criticisms or history of activism. He ticks off several names, including Maria Valdez and Robert Green, editor of the local newspaper La Sierra, which has been a staunch supporter of the restoration of the locals' historic use rights.
"Those people -- I've tried to talk to them before, but it doesn't matter what you say," Barron sighs. "They always turn it around, and it comes out as a negative. There's some pretty good things that have gone on on the ranch, and they just won't accept that."
In addition to buying up the logging contracts and cleaning up the streams, Barron says, ranch management is also working on repairing and reseeding roughly a hundred miles of logging roads that have blighted the landscape and contributed to sediment in irrigation ditches below the ranch. "Mr. Pai is a real stickler about taking care of the forest," he explains. "He doesn't want to timber it; he just wants to bring it back to health."
Valdez readily agrees that Pai has engaged in badly needed restoration efforts after years of over-grazing and over-logging by the previous owners. But she also expresses concern over Pai's secretiveness, his refusal to meet with community groups or divulge his long-range plans, and the friction that has developed between ranch employees and other ranchers in the area. "I don't see him being a good neighbor," she says.
Neither does Ray Maestas. He and his brother own 300 acres adjoining the mountain tract that's been in their family for generations. They had a good working relationship with Zach Taylor, Maestas says, but Pai canceled their grazing lease, bought property around them and made repeated efforts to purchase their land, too. Maestas has since clashed with ranch employees over pond construction, an eighty-acre plot of uncertain ownership, and fencing maneuvers that have limited his access to headgates that control water flowing to his land.
"I like to get along with my neighbors and work things out," Maestas says. "This guy came in here like, 'We got money, we'll run you out.' They thought they were going to make life miserable for me, but I made it miserable for them, too. If they're going to act like that, they're never going to get my land."
Twice Maestas was cited for trespassing after crossing Pai's land to get to his headgates. The tickets were issued by a county deputy who also moonlights as a member of the ranch's security force. ("Talk about a conflict of interest," Maestas snorts.) Maestas contested the tickets in court and got them dismissed.
Tensions have eased somewhat in recent months, in part because the level of activity on the ranch has declined dramatically "since the Enron thing started," Maestas says.
"I don't know what they're doing up there," he admits. "They brought in about fifty head of cows when they first came in. Then they sold part of them. They're probably down to about 25 head. How can you run 25 head on 77,000 acres? It doesn't make any sense at all."
Other neighbors have clashed with ranch staff over boundary issues or their right to use certain roads -- county-maintained roads, in some cases, although what constitutes a "public road" on la sierra isn't always clear -- to access property that is surrounded by Pai's holdings. The northern end of the ranch is riddled with five-acre lots, a remnant of a failed 1970s subdivision scheme; Pai owns most of the lots, but a few belong to locals who use them primarily during hunting season.
Last fall, one property owner found that a road he'd always used to access his land had been barricaded. He proceeded on foot, he says, only to encounter a Pai hand escorting two other hunters off the property. The man insisted that the newcomer leave, too; he refused.
"The guy started cussing me out," the hunter recalls. "He tried to intimidate me. I said, 'I don't have to explain this to you. I have land up here, and you have a gun and I have a gun.' I told him, 'You better not follow me. It's going to be like following bin Laden up here.'"
After some discussion, the hunter went on his way without incident. But other confrontations have turned violent. In February 2001, 65-year-old Ben Quintana was hospitalized with broken ribs after an argument with ranch employee Carlos DeLeón over access to a road; DeLeón subsequently filed a civil lawsuit and sought criminal charges against Quintana, claiming that Quintana assaulted him and fired shots at him.