Reclusive billionaire Louis Moore Bacon is emerging from the shadows in a southern Colorado showdown over solar-power transmission lines.
One side of the environmental clash paints the 54-year-old hedge-fund-managing land baron and conservationist as a natural-resource champion protecting one of the state's last unspoiled ranches. The other sees a deep-pocketed NIMBY guarding his own private Eden and thwarting Colorado's pioneering push for statewide solar energy.
"Having helped many others in their fights against outside, profit-oriented polluters, I couldn't shirk this battle when I know there is so much at stake for the San Luis Valley residents, the range, the environment, the animals and for all of Colorado," he said in an e-mail interview with The Denver Post.
The transmission project, however, is supported by Western Resource Advocates, a Boulder-based environmental law and policy group.
Three of the valley's county commissions — Ala mosa, Saguache and Rio Grande — also have voiced support for the line, which they see as helping to ensure electricity reliability and promoting economic development.
The utilities argue that the long-planned transmission lines not only meet requirements of new clean-energy legislation but provide a loop system that protects the flow of power to the San Luis Valley.
Initial hopes to have the line ready by 2013 are now stalled by at least several years, in large part because of Bacon's effort to push the $180 million project into more intensive environmental review.
"The losers here are the people of Colorado who have clearly expressed their desire for us to develop solar potential," said Xcel spokesman Mark Stutz.
Utility companies rarely lose fights for transmission upgrades, which many view as an essential step toward providing alternative energy. But utility companies seldom confront deep-pocketed conservation stalwarts like Bacon.
"He's never scared of a fistfight," said environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr., whose Waterkeeper Alliance has tapped Bacon's bounty for protracted legal fights against industrial hog farms in North Carolina and a coral-reef-threatening development plan in the Bahamas. "He is our single largest supporter. He's one of the few supporters out there who are willing to fund litigation and fight long term."
Bacon bought Trinchera in 2007 from Malcolm Forbes largely for its undeveloped nature. Forbes, who in 2004 permanently removed development rights on 81,400 acres at Trinchera, sold to Bacon based on his promise to continue the ranch's environmental legacy, a Forbes spokeswoman said. The $175 million deal marked the highest price ever paid for a single-family home in U.S. history.
Bacon is an undeniable force behind the opposition.
He has paid Denver public-relations firm GBSM $100,000 in the past two years to help coordinate his fight against Xcel and Tri-State.
And he's no stranger to ramping up a fight. Or even a petty squabble.
Last summer, police visiting Bacon's Lyford Cay palace in the Bahamas found four high-end Meyer Sound speakers that local news reports described as "ultrasonic weaponry" capable of projecting powerful soundwaves across long distances. The speakers, typically used in outdoor arenas, can potentially damage structures and injure people.
The speakers, according to a statement by Bacon's local attorney, were used to "counterbalance loud music" emanating from boisterous parties at the compound of Bacon's across-the-cay neighbor, billionaire fashion designer Peter Nygard. Nygard's attorneys, in a public statement, said the "sound cannons" caused Nygard to suffer "headaches and irregular heartbeats." (The two billionaire neighbors remain locked in lawsuits over access and easements.)
"The continued escalation of Nygard's late-night parties and his refusal to abide by Lyford Cay protocols left few options but an effort to return in kind the music that he broadcast," read the statement from Bacon's Bahamas attorney Pericles Maillis.
Bacon's Colorado full-press PR campaign to highlight alternative routes for the transmission line is far reaching. Superstar crooner Sting this summer visited the Denver Art Museum and paused to gaze at a painting of Trinchera's Mount Blanca, on loan to the museum by Bacon. As if on cue, Sting told a gallery of invited reporters he'd be "very upset if there was a huge system of power lines in front of it."
"It's so bizarre to defend ourselves from this big rock-star guy," said Xcel's Stutz. "It is unusual for us to deal with a landowner who hires his own PR firm and bevy of lawyers."