VAIL, Colo. - Diane Gansauer was on a future-of-skiing panel for activists a year ago when she heard a representative from Vail Resorts outline a vision for Interstate 70, a highway sometimes called Colorado's "Main Street through the Mountains."
For 50 miles or more, he said, the
four-lane highway would link a chain of interconnected ski areas
and their accompanying second homes, strip malls and parking lots.
It would be just like the highly organized resorts of the European
"I left that meeting
chilled," recalls Gansauer, executive director of the Colorado
Wildlife Federation, primarily a group of hunters. "Who says we
want to be anything like the Alps?"
question others have also been asking as they view growth along
I-70, a sometimes diesel-fumed highway linking Denver to
high-altitude western Colorado. Already, I-70 drivers pass by 829
ski trails served by 124 lifts and gondolas within 60 miles. Hay
fields and sagebrush are fast giving way to factory outlets and
condo developments, while high housing prices turn many workers
into commuters who must drive 50 miles over mountain passes to
reach affordable housing (HCN, 11/23/96).
see this east-to-west network of growing mountain cities as the
best of all possible urban and rural worlds. The resort towns offer
jobs - sometimes well-paying jobs - in a beautiful setting.
Others say the corridor is headed in the wrong
direction. Former Denver Catholic Archbishop J. Francis Stafford
warned in 1994 of a "theme-park "alternate reality" for those who
have the money to purchase entrance," while outside the gates,
sprawling buffer zones are occupied by the working poor who service
These high-altitude engines of
intense economic activity did not appear overnight. Every year, on
mountains where bands of sheep still clamber in the summer, there
are new ski trails, another backbowl, a swank new restaurant built
of immense log beams hauled in from Idaho or
Reigning over this ever-growing kingdom
on I-70, though not the only player, is Vail Resorts - the nation's
largest ski area. An immense six miles wide at its greatest
dimension, Vail is a huge factory without smokestacks. It employs
10,000 people at its four resorts, and, in addition to skiing,
offers evening snowmobiling and an all-weather escalator at Beaver
Creek that leads to a year-round outdoor ice rink. Under
consideration are trams to connect its ski areas to those at Aspen,
and to offer snowmaking year-round at Arapahoe
Below the mountains that house spacious
ski runs and expensive homes lies the Vail Valley, a narrow strip
of land that must accommodate rivers and creeks, as well as
Interstate 70 businesses and golf courses.
is here that the struggle for space is fiercest. Here, a
one-bedroom apartment rents for $900 per month, and Eagle County's
vacancy rate is 0.03 percent, the lowest in the
It is in this valley that resentment and
frustration have peaked. It is possible that the Oct. 19 arson,
which caused $12 million in damage to a major ski lift, a
restaurant and two other buildings at Vail Resorts, may turn out to
be an act of vandalism unrelated to the larger issues afflicting
Colorado ski country (HCN, 11/9/98).
now, the fires have come to symbolize the undercurrents of
opposition created by runaway recreational development in the I-70
Although the police do not appear
close to an arrest, a group on the fringe of the environmental
movement - Earth Liberation Front - has claimed responsibility "in
the name of the Canada lynx."
Vail's permit to
expand its ski area by 25 percent onto additional Forest Service
land came only after a bitter battle with environmentalists. They
said the land in question was important habitat for the rare Canada
lynx, an animal that has come to stand as a surrogate for broader
worries about the impacts of development on the natural world.
Critics of all sorts claim that Vail is forever
transforming the high country's geography. Denver and Boulder-based
environmental groups find common if sometimes rocky ground with
hunters and residents of nearby towns, all reacting to what they
see as their shared enemy: corporate-style
Vail attracts money
Television producers haven't gotten
around to it, but Vail would be as rich a source of material for a
soap as the Texas oil scene was for the show, Dallas. Vail could
star former Vail Resort owner George Gillett, who declared
bankruptcy but who was kept on the ski area's payroll at $1.5
million a year. When Vail went public last year and its stock began
trading on Wall Street, Gillett walked away with $32.1 million to
start his own skiing empire elsewhere. Also starring in the drama
could be Wall Street players Leon Black and Carl Icahn, who between
them made off with another $124 million.
The TV Show could feature cameos by the rich and famous who come
and go amid the faux Bavarian architecture: Motorola boss John
Galvin, Wall Street moneyman Henry Kravis, astronauts John Glenn
and Scott Carpenter, and politicians Dan Quayle, Jack Kemp and Ross
Perot. All of these people, of course, have permanent homes
elsewhere, but they're not alone in having second homes in Vail: 72
percent of its housing is devoted to second homes, some owned by
people with incomes in excess of $675,000 annually. Economists
attribute the multiplication of second homes in large part to baby
boomers who continue to reap money in Wall Street's bull
The 4,500 permanent residents of this
now-sprawling village, who occupy a minority of the housing, could
serve as extras or help out the camera crew.
concentration of wealth and political influence has made the resort
a power that would take the TV Vail right into the White House. To
cite an environmental example, former President Gerald Ford, a
part-time Vail Valley resident, influenced then President George
Bush's late 1980s' veto of the Denver area's proposed Two Forks Dam
and Reservoir, a project that would have hurt resort towns that
wanted the water Denver sought to divert eastward out of the
Other connections are quieter and
cozier. Vice President Al Gore dropped in for a New Year's Eve stay
last year at the home of Vail Resorts' CEO Adam Aron. Vail has
strong ties to the Democratic Party through its legal firm of
Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber, and Strickland. Of Norm Brownstein,
Denver's 5280 magazine said: "When Brownstein visits Capitol Hill,
U.S. Senators follow him down the hall. Ted Kennedy calls him the
101st Senator. Bill Clinton takes his calls." The magazine
described one of the legal firm's principals, Steve Farber, as
Denver's most influential individual.
Resorts gives generously to candidates on both sides of the aisle.
Do those campaign contributions yield favors from government? Vail
Resorts gained Colorado market share that teetered on the edge of
anti-trust percentages when it bought out Ralston Purina's
Breckenridge and Keystone ski areas last year. Yet it had to spin
off only the smallish Arapahoe Basin. Competitors cried foul.
But the boom along I-70 isn't riding
solely on political clout. Growth is also due to the creation of
summer economies, says Ford Frick, an economist retained by the
Forest Service. As a result, the term "ski town" is now a misnomer.
The "all-season resorts' offer summer concerts, lecture series, and
shops and services. Such amenities make aging baby boomers a
fast-growing segment of the so-called "ski towns'; the median age
is now over 35.
The priciest real estate is
still found alongside the ski slopes, but golf is attracting more
and more people. Just five golf courses opened nearby in Vail's
first 30 years, but five more opened in the next four years; nine
more are planned.
It's part of a larger trend
toward diversification - of customers, activities and income
sources. Skiing these days is hardly just about skiing; it's about
consuming. It's about eating, and shopping and buying trademarked
goods with resort names on them, plus dozens of other "revenue
enhancers." Vail Resorts is thriving because it has learned to get
a larger and larger portion of the non-lift-ticket money spent in
and around its resorts.
From 1990 to 1997 in
Summit County, home to four ski areas, skier numbers grew 17
percent, while full-time population spurted 44.1 percent. Retail
sales lurched upwards by 96 percent.
County, home to Vail and Beaver Creek, more than kept pace with a
112 percent growth in retail sales. Everywhere in the corridor, job
growth in what Archbishop Stafford called the "leisure colonies,"
outstripped population growth.
diversification has been accompanied by industry consolidation.
Vail led by buying Breckenridge and Keystone. Intrawest, Canada's
ski giant, then bought Copper Mountain and invested $66 million in
ski and real estate operations. Intrawest calls itself North
America's biggest developer of mountain real estate; at Copper
Mountain, it's in the first phase of a $450 million investment in
ski and real estate operations. It also is developing a massive
base area of 4,600 housing units at Keystone in a joint venture
with Vail Resorts. Meanwhile, Steamboat, north of the I-70
corridor, has become part of the American Skiing Co." s string of
ski areas from Maine to California.
continued acquisitions abound. Ever since Vail representatives said
they wanted to add more resorts, Crested Butte and Telluride are
thought to be on Vail's shopping list.
locals are not pleased. Vicki Shaw, head of the High Country
Citizens' Alliance in Crested Butte, says she doesn't believe Vail
Resorts will buy the ski area in her town. Nor does she want it to
"As much as we've had
our differences with the current owners, they are accessible to us.
We run into them on the street. If Vail bought Crested Butte, we'd
be dealing with a very different animal. We didn't like the
precedent they set in dealing with the town of Minturn."
Vail's struggle with Minturn, a down-home former railroad town of
1,100 residents that was settled in 1887, has sent out ripples.
Vail Resorts, allied with two water districts in the Vail Valley,
sued Minturn last year, challenging the town's right to use 4.76
cubic feet per second of the 7 cfs of water it laid claim to in
Minturn, with an annual budget of
$840,000, folded its cards after spending more than $200,000
fighting the suit. That $200,000 never even got the town a court
Minturn won a relatively small cash
settlement but lost its claim to 4.76 cubic feet per second of
water during the dry months of October to April. The value of those
water rights has been estimated at $14 to $16 million. Vail may
eventually be able to use that water to make
Vail Resorts also appears to be flexing
its considerable muscle - it's news when the corporation doesn't
get its way - with the so-called Gilman tract, where former mining
assets could be transformed into part of a wealthy leisure colony.
The land became private during the mining boom of a century ago. It
consists of 6,000 acres - almost 10 square miles - of sometimes
rugged, sometimes high-altitude land lying between Minturn and the
national forest land Vail Resorts just began to expand onto.
Attempts to acquire the land originated with
former Vail owner George Gillett, who engaged several Denver
lawyers, beginning in 1989, to pay back-taxes on the properties
that make up the Gilman tract. Those efforts to claim title to the
property - in which Vail has a 50 percent option - seem to be
nearing success even as cleanup of a portion of the land, a $60
million Superfund site, is ending. Environmentalists, including
some local residents, fear another Vail-controlled real estate
expansion only a mile away.
Leaning on the lynx
Thus far, the major players
in the ski industry have had things almost all their own way. Only
those who attempted to establish new ski areas on public lands have
been defeated, usually by local opponents. But as the big ski
companies continue to tame and transform the mountains, they are
running into an enemy that learned its skills fighting mining,
logging and dam-building: the environmental movement. And the
environmentalists' most powerful weapons are the federal Endangered
Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, the same
weapons they have wielded against those now-declining extractive
The conflict between
environmentalists and Vail Resorts came to a visible head last
year, when Vail Resorts tried to expand its ski terrain by 25
percent onto a Forest Service roadless area. It was late to make a
stand. Environmentalists and those concerned about the social
impacts of a growing ski industry had been ineffectual in fighting
a long series of resort expansions. But this last one led the
critics to draw a line in the sand.
was over the rare Canada lynx, and the fact that its prime habitat
lies between 8,000 to 11,000 feet of elevation - the same habitat
favored by downhill skiers.
The opponents had
almost nothing going for them. Planning for the expansion onto what
the Forest Service called Category III lands had begun right after
Vail's last major expansion: the opening of China Bowl in
1988-1989. That was greeted with a 12 percent growth in the number
of skiers. Even then, everyone involved knew the lynx would be an
issue, and Vail Resorts, after consulting with the Forest Service,
agreed to avoid pockets of old growth and wetlands in order to
The last lynx seen in Colorado
was illegally trapped near the Mushroom Bowl area of the resort in
early 1974, soon after the animal had been placed on the state's
endangered species list. Then in 1989, probable lynx prints were
discovered in Super Bowl, part of the proposed Category III
expansion onto public land. As the Forest Service moved to approve
the expansion, with modifications best described as "no net loss to
lynx habitat," environmental groups prodded the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service to formally list the animal as threatened or
Instead, the Fish and Wildlife
Service overruled its field biologists and refused to list the
animal. A federal judge later forced the agency to reconsider its
decision, and now the lynx is almost certain to be proposed for
listing next summer.
But a federal listing will
come too late to affect the present expansion. Environmentalists
believe the Forest Service should have honored the spirit of the
Endangered Species Act by delaying the ski expansion. Instead,
after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave its unofficial OK,
the Forest Service authorized tree-cutting and road-building in the
area Oct. 16. Three days later, the arsonists
Jasper Carlton, executive director of
the Boulder, Colo.-based Biodiversity Legal Foundation, along with
the national group, Defenders of Wildlife, mounted the lawsuits
that forced the federal government to protect the lynx.
"We're fooling ourselves to
think that we can continue down this same path with rampant growth
and continue to have species like the lynx," Carlton says. Unlike
some conservationists, Carlton doesn't call the lynx "the spotted
owl of the Rockies." And he acknowledges that protecting the animal
won't halt development; it will merely slow things
"We have just tons and tons of imperiled
plants and animals," adds Carlton. "It's not just one individual
animal - the lynx. It's pretty massive."
"It's the first species that
we've had that really forced a broad-scale re-examination of the
high mountain forests," agrees Gary Patton, biologist for the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service. High-mountain ecosystems have become
like moth-eaten cloth, many biologists say. A few holes are no
problem, but with enough of them the material loses its structural
The Forest Service and ski industry,
often working in uncomfortable collaboration, respond that ski
areas currently occupy only one-third of 1 percent of national
forest land in Colorado. In the White River National Forest, where
70 percent of the state's downhill skiing occurs, ski areas occupy
just 3 percent of the forest's 2.3 million acres. By comparison,
roughly 33 percent of the forest is dedicated wilderness.
"The public perception is
somewhat colored by the fact that you view the forest from the
highways," says Ed Ryberg, winter sports program administrator for
the Forest Service in the Rocky Mountain region. "Nonetheless,
where they (ski areas) exist, they are very apparent' - especially
That is by design: With some
exceptions, the Forest Service has come to encourage the expansion
of existing resorts rather than the creation of new ones. And half
of the existing ski resorts in the state lie along I-70, and have
the capital and the management talent necessary for successful
Colorado still brims with potential
ski areas, and at one time developers seemed to have their pick of
new sites. Some, such as Quail Mountain near Leadville, never got
far. Others, such as Adam's Rib south of Eagle, were dropped
because of fierce local opposition and environmental barriers (HCN,
2/19/96). Still others - Catamount near Steamboat Springs and Wolf
Creek Valley near Pagosa Springs - received Forest Service
approval, but lacked the necessary finances, estimated at $50
million in start-up costs. The last ski area to be opened on public
land in Colorado was Beaver Creek, in 1981.
Today, nobody is talking about new ski areas, says Michael Berry,
who directs the National Ski Area Association. He thinks that's
good: "I think well-planned strategic expansion is far superior in
responding to demand than creating entirely new resorts," he says.
Berry has little sympathy with those who oppose expansion because
they pine for a lightly populated rural West. Demand for skiing and
other outdoor recreation activities will continue to grow, Berry
says, and public land managers have an obligation to make room for
But critics point out that the Canada lynx
and other species need room as well, and are more important than
ski lifts and skiers. The Forest Service's Ryberg predicts listing
the lynx will make life "much more complicated" for existing
resorts that want to grow.
Meanwhile, with the
help of funds provided by Vail Resorts, the state plans to restore
40 lynx this winter to the San Juan Mountains, with another 40
planned for next winter southwest of Leadville. No reintroduction
is planned at Vail itself, because some biologists say I-70
constricts and splits the habitat. Other scientists disagree. The
only thing everyone agrees on is that nobody knows much about lynx
also love the
It's apparent that the lynx and wild
terrain in general are being squeezed by more than ski resorts. A
case in point are the Tenth Mountain Division huts, begun outside
Aspen in 1982 with money donated by former Defense Secretary Robert
McNamara. Sixteen huts on public and private land now punctuate the
backcountry between Aspen, Vail, and Leadville, and they inspire
questions similar to those directed at the downhill ski industry.
"People ask, "When is enough
enough?" "''''says Jim Stark, winter sports administrator for the
U.S. Forest Service in Aspen. "There's an extensive loop of huts in
the backcountry now, and whether we want to admit it or not, they
do have impacts."
Beverly Compton, Rocky
Mountain coordinator for the Aspen-based Project Lighthawk, is a
fan of the huts; still she wonders if there shouldn't be areas left
entirely to wildlife. But to achieve that, she says, would require
that "not all of us be out there all the time doing everything."
Yet at Vail Pass, just east of the Vail ski
area and 90 miles west of Denver, it seems like everyone is out
there all the time doing everything. Ski huts, snowmobiles, private
and commercial Sno-cat skiing, people running on snowshoes - all
have contributed to the increase in backcountry use since 1985.
Although a daily-use fee is charged, and some areas suggested for
special uses are being monitored, there's not much "back" left in
the backcountry at Vail Pass.
Summer use has
also soared. In 1985, only a hint of a trail led to Shrine Ridge
and its resplendent wildflowers and inspiring views of Mount of the
Holy Cross. Now there's even a boardwalk across one soggy meadow.
Afterward, wildflower gawkers can quaff a microbrew beer and enjoy
a tasty lunch at a ski hut-turned-restaurant. By Swiss standards,
the $12 tab is cheap. Otherwise, the experience is much the same.
Switzerland's acclaimed train system bores
through mountains, and cog railways corkscrew to summits that some
climbers die trying to reach. But in Colorado, highways have been
replacing railroads for 60 years. I-70, a portal to paradise for
Denver skiers 20 years ago, now looks like a freeway through
downtown Chicago on ski-season weekends and even more so during
summer. A 65-mile trip from Summit County to Denver on a Sunday
afternoon in August typically takes more than three hours.
Proposals to widen the highway, or build a
high-capacity rail line called a "fixed guideway" are being
debated. One high-tech dreamer, Tom Clarke of Denver, warns that
mountain communities should be getting prepared now for whatever is
going to be built. Right now, the I-70 corridor is crowded with
second-home owners from L.A. and New York and Houston. Most,
however, come from Denver - families that come for weekends or a
week or so during holidays.
An easier commute
from Denver could turn the mountains into bedroom communities for
that city's privileged. If that happens, local land-use codes that
favor private-property rights will be overwhelmed, and development
will proceed apace. Ironically, the best defense the mountains
still have might be an uncomfortably congested
Who's in charge of the
Sooner or later, though, access to the
mountains will be improved, and it will be too late to halt the
Alpine-style development. The future advances in increments. The
Colorado Wildlife Federation's Gansauer says, "You rarely have a
chance to say yes or no or modify an entire vision, because that's
not how it is presented."
That's why, she says,
environmental groups drew their line at Vail - not just because of
the expansion project, but because of the direction it represented.
Changing that direction, she says, requires persistence, political
pressure, money, knowledge and the turning of public
That has never been easy or
straightforward. When he was considering the recent resort
expansion, Sonny LaSalle, then supervisor of the White River
National Forest, ordered ski-area operator Vail Associates to first
make peace with Vail town officials. The resort did, agreeing to a
cap of 19,900 on skier days at the mountain and contributing
$500,000 for construction of traffic roundabouts.
But Minturn, in the path of a wave of secondary
impacts, was not consulted, and neither were more distant places
such as Leadville, which is home to many ski area workers. In
another example of fragmentation, the state's Division of Wildlife
came to terms with the expansion independently. Never did all the
players gather around a single table, in a public process, to
thrash out a general solution.
commissioners had largely signed off on the Category III expansion
back in 1986, and in any case, projects on federal lands are immune
to local land-use laws. County commissioners also lacked new
information - information the state wildlife agency would have had
- about environmental impacts. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service had not yet become a formal player.
its defense, the Forest Service points to the forest-wide planning
it does. Those plans can be viewed as big zoning maps with basic
management goals for specific regions of the forest, from downhill
skiing and snowboarding to wildlife habitat. The planning now under
way assumes continued and growing demand for resort recreation in
the burgeoning West.
The White River National
Forest's master plan will have weight - the forest already has 14
percent of the nation's skiing, thanks to resorts like Vail and
Breckenridge and Aspen.
The draft plan, to be
released in May, has one alternative that would ban further
expansions. Another - the Alps scenario - envisions ski areas
linked, with a few brief gaps, by trams and other overhead
conveyances from Loveland Pass to Beaver Creek. Despite the range
of alternatives, however, the agency appears to have decided that
existing ski areas are the places to add on.
Some wonder how any expansion can be justified, in an industry that
nationally has struggled to get beyond 50 million skiers during the
last two decades. But Colorado's ski industry has defied the norm,
chalking up 2 to 3 percent growth per year while other states
Colorado has done that because it has
great snow, and because even when the snow isn't great, it has
snowmaking - a network of pipes and pumps and guns that transform
water from high mountain streams into the late fall snow base that
makes skiing possible earlier and earlier in the year. Not so long
ago, skiing in Colorado didn't really get going until Christmas.
Now the areas can open by Thanksgiving, sometimes by
In addition to pipelines that carry
water, the ski areas have perfected pipelines that carry visitors.
Many resorts offer direct flights from major cities, but Vail, as
usual, has upped the ante. It posted up to $4 million annually in
flight guarantees to airlines willing to offer direct flights from
13 U.S. cities. Eagle County has paid $3.5 million in improvements
to Eagle County Regional Airport during the last 18 years, while
the FAA paid $23.8 million. The airport has now gone from small
potatoes to the state's fourth busiest.
half of Vail's destination visitors - who provide three-quarters of
the resort's revenues - arrive via those direct flights.
Particularly successful have been flights from Miami, with that
city's connection to South American markets. Eighty percent of the
world's skiers live outside the United States, and Colorado looks
to the Alps not only for ideas, but also as competition for
What's wrong with
Ski lifts paralleling I-70 for 60
miles may not be Westerners' preferred vision of a once-wild
landscape, but supporters of that approach argue that it spares
landscapes elsewhere. That's the argument made by Joe Macy, the
Vail Resorts representative who chilled Gansauer with his European
vision last year.
"Do I like
Summit County now? No, but it takes the pressure off of places like
North Park," Macy says, referring to a mountain-rimmed Colorado
basin unaltered by ski areas, or, for that matter, by much of
This notion assumes that demand
should be met. "To just try to stifle demand and say that alone
will reduce people's expectations for recreation I think is naive,"
says the National Ski Area's Association's Berry.
If growth is inevitable, is Europe a good
model? Its resort belts generally offer better transportation, more
on-site employee housing, and more compact resort towns than do the
"In many places in Europe you do
have a sense of intelligent development," says John Fry, founding
editor of Snow Country. "That's rare in Colorado." Colorado needs
to realize that a mountain valley has a tolerance for only so much
development, he adds. Instead of massive, suburban-style expansion
of existing mountain towns, he'd like to see dispersed development
- smaller-scale alpine villages linked by pollution-free aerial
Myles Rademan, a planner and
lecturer from Park City, Utah, says the present triumph of free
enterprise, entrepreneurialism and property rights has left little
of enduring beauty. The I-70 corridor, at the forefront of changes
sweeping across the West, he says, provides a model the rest of the
West should strive to
"Only now are we
developing the idea of sacredness, that these are sacred places,
and we shouldn't develop except in very circumspect ways," Rademan
As a district attorney for the last
decade, Pete Michaelson prosecuted accused criminals up and down
the I-70 corridor. Now in private law practice well off the
corridor, he abhors the sanitizing of the I-70 resorts, where
wildlife becomes lawn ornaments and nature is appreciated through a
window, like a piece of art on a condominium
"It is the aesthetic,
not the dynamic, of nature which draws people to Vail," he says.
Michaelson says Vail's increasing reach is "rendering" nature into
theme park: "That many people find this offensive, the cause of a
sense of desperation (and) the motive for terrorism," he concludes,
"is absolutely understandable."
Allen Best lived for 21 years on or close to
the Interstate 70 corridor, the last 13 years in the Vail area.
Most of that time he worked as a journalist, and edited newspapers
in Winter Park, Kremmling, Vail and Avon. He also was a snowmaker,
a trash hauler and a construction laborer, in addition to steady
work as a freelance writer. This year he moved to the Denver area
but continues to contribute to the Vail Trail