Arson on Vail Mountain returns to the news

by Allen Best



Arson is a difficult crime to prove, so it’s no surprise that the federal government only recently named two suspects in the 1998 fires that caused $12 million in damage atop the Vail ski area.

The 28-year-old suspects, who both grew up in Eugene, Ore., have not been charged, let alone found guilty, of anything at Vail. Some informed opinion suggests guilt may never be established unless plea bargains in other cases produce confessions.

Of course, lack of evidence never stops many people from drawing conclusions. In times of trauma, human nature seems to respond with shotgun conclusions. Hence, after the 9/11 attacks, many people of dark complexions were attacked simply. … well, simply because they maybe, kinda, sorta looked like people from the Middle East.

And after the fires at Vail in 1998, I heard educated people respond with logic that was no better. The Sierra Club had better divulge what it knows about the arsonist, one woman said. "Don’t tell me they don’t know who it was," she added. This was also about the time that the term "eco-terrorism" was unleashed by headline writers.

What may seem similarly wild was the speculation that maybe even the ski company itself set the fires. It got insurance money, a better-operating cafeteria atop the mountain, and perhaps public sympathy -- although it would seem the resort also suffered a black eye.

The fires capped a time of escalating tensions. The ski area was expanding even as the ski company operator was becoming more corporate. Taking advantage of the frenzy for initial public offerings, company officers who helped deliver the company to stock-market investors were rewarded with tens of millions of dollars. These public lands were the root cause for that overnight wealth.

Not incidentally, the Vail area had been seeing a rapid influx of big money and also rapid population growth. Eagle County, where the resort is located, was the nation’s tenth fastest growing county during that decade.

Intensifying the story further was credible evidence that the rare Canada lynx existed in the area where the ski area expansion was to occur.

We’re down the road seven years. What can we say for sure with hindsight? First, the ski area’s argument for expansion was a sham. Ski area officials — backed by the Forest Service — said additional terrain was needed was to provide "insurance" terrain for early and late seasons, when warm weather made other runs at the ski area unskiable.

The first few years after this expansion occurred were the perfect time to test that proposition. They were drought years, but guess what? The expansion area remained closed -- in part because of habitat needs of the lynx. Still, that simple fact exposed the fallacy of the need for the expansion.

Now, when the expansion area is open, other parts of the ski area are deserted. Vail’s skier days haven’t grown. Colorado skier days remain the same as they were before the fires. By the numbers, there was no good argument for this additional use of public lands. Early opponents were right. The expansion was about marketing and market share. It was about bigger is better, about changing fashions and about using public assets to sell real estate on nearby private land. And they were right that it would trigger similar expansions at other ski areas.

If Vail’s numbers have not grown, the ski area remains one of the most wonderful ski experiences for those of us who call ourselves intermediate skiers. Instead of trails that seem like boulevards, the expansion area, now called Blue Sky Basin, has the feel of backcountry skiing, but without the sweat. Many ski areas across the West large and small have scrambled to deliver similar experiences. There’s even a name for it: "backcountry lite."

As for the lynx habitat, the jury remains out. If this is not necessarily the "last, best habitat in Colorado," as was cited as a provocation for the arson, there’s new evidence that it continues to be good habitat. Still, the ski area might be right. Ski area operations and lynx might just be compatible.

But the broader, mostly unarticulated point of contention is about wealth. It is about the widening divisions between the economic classes. Vail had become the symbol for wealth elbowing its way into the West, monopolizing the public lands in the name of big-money recreation. In that context, a swank eatery at the top of Vail Mountain must have seemed an easy target.

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lived for many years in the Vail area and now lives and writes in a Denver suburb. © High Country News