The Mystery of Pai

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.