Vail fires outrage community

  • Sheriff's Deputy Donna VanNote surveys remains of Two Elks Lodge

    Andrew Holman
 

VAIL, Colo. - Vail Resorts has never enjoyed so much support. The early-morning fires that destroyed cafeterias and other ski facilities atop Vail Mountain, causing $12 million in damage, have transformed the nation's largest ski area into a victim.

The Earth Liberation Front - Internet sites identify it as a splinter group of Earth First! and the Animal Liberation Front - claimed responsibility for the blazes "on behalf of the lynx," a cousin of the bobcat. The resort's imminent 4,000-acre expansion will invade the "best lynx habitat in the state," the group claimed in an e-mail message sent to Colorado media. "For your safety and convenience, we strongly advise skiers to choose other destinations until Vail cancels its inexcusable plans for expansion."

"I am furious," said one Vail resident, who demanded anonymity for fear of retribution by the "terrorists." She promised to drop her membership in the Sierra Club and other environmental groups until they flush out those who were responsible.

One resident volunteered his time to help rebuild the mountain-top cafeteria. Another called for a bounty on the heads of the saboteurs. And some said they would never again feel safe in the community.

"Don't let the bastards get you down," a defiant Vail Resorts president Andy Daly told 400 cheering employees and community residents days after the Oct. 19 fire. He blamed the fire on "outsiders, those who don't share our values, who have forced their values on us, and who know no compromise." He continued, "Those outsiders have, in a way, stolen our innocence."

Environmental groups distanced themselves from the fires. "It's bad for our cause all around. It stinks," said Rocky Smith, former Colorado Environmental Coalition forest ecology coordinator and the most dogged critic of the resort expansion during the last five years. "There are lots of reasons to hate Vail, but not enough to justify arson."

Diane Gansauer, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation, predicted the fires will "make it harder ultimately to protect endangered wildlife, because people begin to associate protecting wildlife with extremism."

Still, critics of the resort corporation say it lost its innocence long ago. They contend that Vail's development operations have contributed to drum-tight housing and to festering social inequities along Interstate 70. The average hourly wage in Eagle County is $11.69, while a single-family home runs about half a million dollars. Many service workers commute from other towns or trailer villages along the interstate (HCN, 4/17/95: The New West's servant economy).

It also is no secret that some local businesses feel threatened by Vail Resorts' expanding marketing power and its ability to pull more tourist dollars into its shops and restaurants, and away from other establishments. Protracted disputes over water rights with the nearby town of Minturn have added to hostility toward the corporation.

Vail's latest expansion, first proposed in the mid-1980s, came to represent the worst of what some label the company's "imperialism." Opponents argued that the expansion was a ploy to boost real estate prices on 6,000 acres of adjacent land in which Vail holds an interest.

Wildcat serves as a symbol

The Canada lynx became the pivotal symbol in the fight to stop the expansion. The last lynx seen in Colorado was trapped close to Vail in 1973, and a paw print was found in the expansion area in 1989.

Lynx activists charged the Forest Service with giving only lip service to lynx habitat when it approved the expansion (HCN, 11/24/97: Looking for the missing lynx). The Land and Water Fund of the Rockies threw legal obstacles at the expansion at every step. The Biodiversity Legal Foundation pushed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to add the lynx to the endangered species list. Last spring, a federal judge agreed, ordering the agency to protect the cat.

But the lynx wasn't enough to stop Vail. The last obstacle to tree cutting was removed Oct. 14, when a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals judge refused to issue an emergency injunction on the expansion. Chainsaws went to work two days later.

Vail had planned to break ground and celebrate its expansion in October; the arson delayed that event - although not for long.

The company expects the fires will cause only minor and temporary loss of ski terrain. Cafeterias and the ski patrol headquarters will be housed in tents and yurts. None of the company's 5,000 peak-season jobs will be lost. Stock in the publicly traded company even edged up. Unless lingering fears cause skier visits to slump this winter, the company could come out ahead.

In Boulder, Colo., however, Jasper Carlton, executive director of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, sees possible value to the fires. The Fish and Wildlife Service has until next June to decide how much endangered species protection to give the lynx. "Like it or not," says Carlton, "the lynx is now a national issue."

Allen Best writes from Arvada, Colo. He lived in the Vail area for 13 years.

YOU CAN ...

  • Contact Tom Allender with Vail Associates, P.O. Box 7, Vail, CO 81658 (970/476-5601). Visit the Vail Resorts Inc. Web site at www.snow.com for the company's latest reports as well as maps and pictures of the mountains;
  • Contact Jasper Carlton with the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, P.O. Box 18327, Boulder, CO 80308-1327 (303/442-3037);
  • Read more about listing the lynx as an endangered species in the Bulletin Board, p. 8, and in an opinion on page 17.

Copyright © 1998 High Country News

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