The Mystery of Pai

Page 4 of 9

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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast