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.