The caravan of cars and trucks moves slowly through the streets of San Luis and on to Chama, then heads into the hills. It comes to a stop a few minutes later, where a locked gate bars the road. NO TRESPASSING, the sign reads. And, in smaller print, as if to clarify some lingering ambiguity: FOR ANY REASON WHATSOEVER.
This is one of several barred entrances to the Taylor Ranch -- or, as the property is now officially called, Jaroso Creek Ranch and Culebra Ranch. But to people in Costilla County, the land on the other side of the fence has always been known as la sierra: a remote, 77,000-acre sweep of alpine meadows, steep timber and snowcapped ridges sprawled across the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo range, from the heart of the county to the New Mexico state line.
On this stormy spring day, much of the ranch is invisible, shrouded in mist and low, dark clouds. Snow begins to fall as the caravaners pile out of their cars and gather by the gate. Maybe it's the weather, maybe it's the growing sense of futility about the battle at hand, but this year's turnout is smaller than those at earlier protests. Still, about 75 protesters huddle in a circle. Some clutch cardboard signs that take issue with the No Trespassing sign. Some, thinly dressed, shiver in the icy wind. A few people make speeches.
"We want Lou Pai to talk to us," says activist Shirley Otero. "The people in this community depend on that mountain for our water.... There is constant conflict between Lou Pai and the people who have land below him and next to him.
"It's about water. It's about globalization. It isn't Taylor anymore; it isn't one man. We are now dealing with Enron.... If we allow Lou Pai to do what he's doing without saying anything, then we deserve whatever it is they give us."
Her words are snatched by the wind. As protests go, this one is damp and low-key, but it hasn't gone entirely unheeded. Earlier, as the caravan assembled in town, a young man wandered through the crowd, writing down names and license plates, until the local sheriff took his list away from him and told him to get lost. And now, as Otero shouts into the wind, several men watch from the other side of the fence, equipped with video cameras and binoculars. One is dressed in camouflage. All of them, including the spy in town, work directly or indirectly for Lou Lung Pai, the 54-year-old former Enron executive who quietly bought up la sierra a few years ago under the cloak of three limited-liability corporations.
Despite his leading role in some of the most ambitious and money-bleeding ventures at Enron, Pai hasn't attracted the kind of attention associated with other major players in the energy giant's recent collapse. To date, he has not been summoned before congressional inquiries into what has become the largest bankruptcy case in history. Even the business press paid him scant notice until it was reported that he cashed out more Enron stock than any other top executive between 1999 and 2001, shares worth $353 million -- more than the combined booty reaped from insider options by former chairman Kenneth Lay, ex-CEO Jeff Skilling and chief financial officer Andrew Fastow.
But in Costilla County, Pai's enormous wealth and furtive operations have been a source of endless speculation and controversy among the largely Hispanic population. While other Enron execs were snapping up multiple homes in Aspen or adding to their Ferrari collections, Pai set out to buy his own mountain, including one of the state's prized fourteeners, the 14,047-foot Culebra Peak. By acquiring the Taylor Ranch, the publicity-shy native of Nanking, China, managed to put himself in the middle of Colorado's oldest and most rancorous range war.
The mountain tract is the lifeblood of the communities that exist in its watershed, including San Luis, the oldest incorporated town in Colorado. For more than a century, locals used la sierra communally, as summer pasture for their cattle and as a source of game, recreation and firewood -- activities based on "historic use rights" awarded by Mexican custom and confirmed by treaty, but never formally recognized in an American courtroom. For the past forty years, the land has been at the center of bitter court battles and boundary disputes that have occasionally erupted in violence.
Pai's chief contribution to the conflict has been to beef up security. He fenced out the locals far more effectively than the previous landowners ever could, and the skeleton crew now employed on the ranch seems to be mainly engaged in patrolling the perimeter. His people have diligently pursued trespassing complaints; on at least two occasions, confrontations with neighboring landowners have led to claims and counterclaims of assault and harassment. His supporters praise his willingness to hire local help and his commitment to restore areas of the ranch that were damaged by intensive logging during the latter years of the Taylor regime. But others view with alarm his efforts to cut off access to the mountain and to buy up neighboring properties and water rights.
"The most passive person, if you push him enough, he's going to turn around and bite you," says Andrés Montoya, a rancher who had a heated standoff with one armed Pai employee last year. "These people are definitely pushers."
Most of all, locals puzzle over Pai's long-term plans for la sierra. The new owner has never met with the community to discuss his goals, preferring to visit privately with sympathetic county officials, one of whom has relatives on Pai's payroll. He has given only one interview about the ranch since he bought the place -- a few bland comments about the "very beautiful piece of property" that ran in the Denver Post more than two years ago. (Through his Denver attorney, Pai declined Westword's request for an interview.)
Yet in many ways, Pai's actions are speaking for him. Good fences might make good neighbors, but in Costilla County, as Calvin Trillin once noted in the New Yorker, "a man sometimes owns only the land his neighbors acknowledge that he owns."
Soon after the protest ended, Costilla County Sheriff Roger Benton received a call from a Pai employee complaining that protesters had strayed across the fence line. "It was probably a couple of kids taking a leak," Benton muses. "They claim they had video cameras rolling. They're looking to jump on everybody and anybody."
Benton says he has no problem enforcing the rights of private property owners, but he also views the tactics of the ranch's security people, such as taking down license-plate numbers of peaceful protesters, as "provoking."
"Their opinion is they pay a lot more taxes than anybody else, and they need all the law enforcement they can get," he says. "If it's a legitimate call, of course we will respond. But we do the same for everyone. Their attitude could mellow out a little bit."
He came in the back way, as cautious men often do.
In the summer of 1999 a man brought a flat tire for repair to a service station in Amalia, New Mexico, just a short drive along a back road from the Colorado border. The station's operator, Manuel Martinez, fixed the tire and soon became acquainted with the owner of the vehicle in question: Lou Pai.
"He was a nice guy, real easy to talk to," Martinez recalls. "There aren't many people I can't get to talk. We talked about the weather, stuff like that. He was friendly enough, but he didn't volunteer anything."
Pai came through Amalia several times over the next few weeks. Sometimes he brought his son and daughter with him; sometimes he was with men who seemed to know a lot about surveying or forestry. Martinez had a two-bedroom apartment that he rented for as much as $75 a night during ski season, and Pai's entourage took the place on several occasions. Martinez gathered that Pai had some interest in real estate in the area, but he had no idea of the scale of the purchase his guest was contemplating.
"I didn't know he'd bought the property until afterwards," he says.
In fact, Pai already had substantial holdings in Costilla County by the time Martinez met him. In 1997, a company called Jaroso Creek Ranch purchased 23,800 acres of the Taylor Ranch, the southern third of the property, for $6.9 million in cash and a swap of land in Texas valued at $2.6 million. Pai's name did not appear on the incorporation papers filed with the state, although his sister, Sue Pai Yang, a New Jersey attorney, was listed as one of Jaroso Creek's officers.
Two years later, around the time Pai was traveling regularly through Amalia, another company, Western Properties Investors, purchased the remaining 53,800 acres of the Taylor spread for a reported $13 million. Pai's representatives have since acknowledged that both Jaroso Creek and Western Properties are "owned by members of the Pai family," with no outside investors. Two other Pai-controlled entities, Beaver Dam Ranch and BYT Enterprises, have been engaged in buying up other small parcels in the county.
Months after the sale of the ranch was completed, Martinez was hired by a subcontractor to work a bulldozer on a cleanup crew on Pai's new spread. But he never ran into the king of the mountain again. He remains impressed, though, at how close to the vest Pai played his cards. The man didn't seem all that interested in ranching, he recalls, even while he was negotiating the purchase of one of the largest ranches in Colorado.
"I see a lot of people who have money to invest," Martinez says, "and they don't always know what they're investing in. I don't think he was a farmer or a rancher at all. But he hired the right people to do the right things for him."
Doubtless Pai had his reasons for keeping a low profile during his reconnaissance, renting a room in Amalia rather than causing a stir in San Luis. He was keenly aware that the ranch he was buying had a colorful history -- too colorful, as far as the previous owners were concerned -- and had been the center of considerable emotion and litigation for generations.
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 sierra was 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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
A month earlier, rancher Andrés Montoya had a tense encounter with another Pai employee, the culmination of a series of disputes over fences and grazing areas. Montoya approached the man's pickup truck after the employee chased Montoya's pregnant cows from a neighbor's field in the Aspen Highlands subdivision.
"I told him, 'You're pushing my cows too hard. What's your problem? You don't own the property,'" Montoya says. "He started calling me names -- you know, 'f-you' this and that, 'f-ing Mexican.' I told him he had no right to talk to me like that. That's when he pulled a big revolver and told me he was going to blow my head away.
"He was trying to provoke me. I used my better judgment. A guy pulls a hogleg on you, what do you do? I told him, 'You're pretty bad with a gun, ain't you?' About that time, my son pulled up. He put the gun back down. He didn't know what my son had.
"I called the sheriff. They didn't show up. I filed a report. They went and arrested this man."
But the charges against the employee were dropped, and Montoya was subsequently charged with harassment and menacing. Montoya represented himself in court, and a jury found him not guilty on all charges. The sheriff and undersheriff involved in the investigation are no longer in office, following a recall campaign last year triggered by citizen complaints about overzealous enforcement actions ("The Siege," June 21, 2001). But Montoya is still seething over the letters written by Pai's attorneys to the district attorney, urging his prosecution.
"They tried to portray me as this violent, aggressive person," he says. "That's nothing but a lie. But they did influence the prosecutor. I think they're trying to intimidate people any way they can."
Montoya says he's had to reduce his herd by two-thirds over the years because of his lack of access to mountain pastures. He's seen neighbors in the same downward spiral who ended up selling their land to Pai. Others have signed waivers, relinquishing their claims as herederos to historic use rights, in exchange for being allowed to obtain grazing leases on the ranch.
Montoya refuses to sign. He says he'll find out this spring if he's going to have renewed struggles over grazing in the subdivision. "I haven't had any further discussion with them, other than dirty looks and hard feelings," he says.
Barron acknowledges that it's ranch policy to require neighbors to sign away their land-grant claims in order to obtain grazing leases. "We don't do business with people who are suing us," he says.
Two years ago, Pai requested a meeting with Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar to discuss the future of the ranch. Pai assured Salazar that his primary interest was in preserving the ranch and using it for his family. He wanted to know if the attorney general "had some ideas for him on how he might be able to bring about a peaceful co-existence with the community," Salazar recalls.
"I told him if there was a way he could provide access to the community, the opportunity for the community to exercise the historic use rights, that would be the right direction," he says. "He said at the time that he would explore those ideas."
Pai's ranch manager says his boss has a "soft spot" for young people and seniors and wants to help the community with donations to worthwhile programs. But any discussion of some kind of easement for herederos isn't on the table -- if it ever was.
"It's private property," Barron declares. "Mr. Pai paid for it. Mr. Taylor paid for it. We expect a decision from the Colorado Supreme Court [on the appeal] any day now. If they lose, we expect them to appeal it further...but there's no way to settle it. There's no one with the authority to settle it, so we expect it to go on."
On February 25, 2000, Lou Pai sold 10,000 shares of Enron stock at $65.04 a share, yielding proceeds of $650,400.
On March 7, 2000, Lou Pai sold 100,000 shares of Enron stock at $72.02 a share, for a total of $7,202,000.
On March 22, 2000, Lou Pai sold 1,760,500 shares of Enron stock at $74.57 a share. Total return: $131,280,480.
Over the next two months, Lou Pai sold nearly two million additional shares of stock, worth more than $130 million.
During a single week in May 2001, shortly before he retired from his position at Enron, Pai cashed in additional shares worth more than $70 million.
Virtually all of the transactions involved restricted shares -- that is, shares of stock that had been issued to Pai as part of a compensation package or offered to him at a fraction of their selling price under the company's stock-option deals for top insiders.
In the midst of these bouts of high finance, a man who worked for one of Pai's subcontractors on the ranch asked his boss for a raise. The employee was being asked to spend long hours on the road, driving between Pai's Colorado property and a ranch the executive owned in New Mexico, and he figured it was only fair that his wages be increased from eight to ten dollars an hour, to help cover gas and mileage.
After much dickering, the worker got his raise. But he was told not to let other employees know of his two-buck-an-hour windfall so the news wouldn't breed discontent.
"We were told that Lou Pai was losing money in the stock market," the man says, "and that's why we weren't getting any raises."
After the rally at the gates of the ranch, the protesters head back to a dance hall at San Luis for more speeches. Under dim lights, the crowd milling and thinning, environmental activists and Chicano-rights leaders from around the state offer a series of earnest exhortations not to give up the struggle. Many of the speakers, like the plaintiffs in the 21-year-old land-grant lawsuit, sport gray hair and the complaints of middle age.
To date, no Enron shareholders have filed any formal claims against Pai's Colorado ranch. But the attorney for the herederos fully expects that to happen. "Our claims predate any claims other individuals might have, whether from bankruptcy courts, shareholders or whatever," says Jeff Goldstein. "But this property is going to be involved in many lawsuits if, in fact, Mr. Pai is the owner. That's not a pleasant prospect. Whatever happens, we'll have to deal with it."
And should the Colorado Supreme Court rule in favor of the locals' claims of access, Goldstein notes, the case will still be far from over. "Even if we win, there are other matters that have to be litigated, such as the number of people who will benefit," he says. "If we lose, we'll probably appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on the treaty issues."
Even if the locals ultimately have their rights restored, Maria Valdez concedes that figuring out how to use the mountain fairly and wisely will be a formidable challenge. There would certainly be more competition for the mountain's resources than the informal arrangements that prevailed forty years ago.
"I think that mountain has always been damned," Valdez says. "As long as one person tries to own it, there's been trouble. Beaubien didn't give us the land. He gave us use rights, rights that come from Spain and from Roman law. The best outcome for us would be to have some kind of access rights, but we have to look at it in the context of the 21st century."
Attorney General Salazar still hopes the state might someday engineer a purchase of the ranch that "recognizes the historic use rights of the residents of the watershed." The Taylor Ranch is a prize worth protecting, he says -- not only as an ecological treasure, but as a "cultural crown jewel" of vital historic and economic value to the surrounding community. Since so much of the Sangre de Cristo ecosystem is now under some form of protection, either as state or federal holdings -- like the recently green-lighted acquisition of the Baca Ranch as part of the Great Sand Dunes preserve -- or in the hands of private landowners such as Ted Turner, it only makes sense to pursue the Taylor property as well.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"The linchpin, for us, if the opportunity arises, is to get a coalition together as we did with the Baca purchase," Salazar says. "There was such a jelling of the interests in that situation that we were able to get the legislation through Congress in less than a year."
But at present there is no such coalition and no opportunity to buy. Once a month or so, Salazar says, someone from his office contacts Pai's attorneys to see if he is interested in selling the ranch.
The answer has always been no.