The Mystery of Pai

Page 5 of 9

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."

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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