Arson isn't the only crime on Vail Mountain

  • LYING LOW: Lynx

    Neal and Mary Jane Mishler photo

Fires set atop Colorado's Vail Mountain have unleashed a storm of condemnation, a media feeding frenzy, and a no-holds-barred federal investigation.

But the powerful public outrage provoked by the arson has obscured more important events occurring on the backside of Vail Mountain. To my way of thinking, there was just as much to be outraged about before the arson.

What we seem to have forgotten is that over the past decade hundreds of individuals and a coalition of environmental, wildlife and animal-rights organizations have been fiercely battling the immensely wealthy and politically powerful Vail Associates Inc. They have been trying to persuade the Vail corporation to cancel or at least reduce its planned expansion into virgin, old-growth forest and critical habitat for the biologically imperiled lynx.

The section of public land into which Vail sought to cut roads and ski runs is a de facto wilderness called the Two Elk Roadless Area. Located between the Holy Cross Wilderness and the Eagles Nest Wilderness, it provides an important corridor for migrating wildlife.

Vail Inc. doesn't own this land - we do. And the public wanted it to be left undeveloped - as demonstrated by citizen comments received by the U.S. Forest Service in 1997, which ran 80-to-1 in opposition to the project.

But Vail Inc. and the Forest Service were not responsive to the grassroots efforts or to the opposition within the community of Vail. After their administrative appeal was rejected by the Forest Service, the public-interest plaintiffs filed suit in Federal District Court, asking that the court stop the Vail expansion based on multiple alleged violations of environmental laws.

Central to the court debate is an environmental impact statement (the document the Forest Service is required by law to produce and which is supposed to be an objective analysis which determines whether or not a proposed project should be allowed). The EIS, tellingly, was underwritten by Vail Inc.

What the EIS doesn't tell is that the Vail expansion is about much more than skiing. In recent years, the majority of Vail corporation's vast profits have come not from selling lift tickets but from retail sales and from the associated real estate development around the land it leases from the Forest Service and makes available for skiing.

So it should come as no surprise that Vail Associates Inc. is also a partner in the company which owns the 6,000-acre Gilman tract immediately adjacent to the Forest Service land on which Vail is now constructing ski runs.

Without ski runs adjacent to it, the land is not worth much - financially. Vail Inc. solicited the permission of the Forest Service to construct ski runs on public property, knowing the value of the private land next to it would soar once they were built. This would be illegal if it were provable in court. But the Vail corporation has managed to obfuscate its interest in the Gilman tract and has delayed exercising its option to control development there. Thus, the Forest Service and Vail Inc. can both attempt to wriggle out of acknowledging any connection between the new ski runs and their effect on adjacent property values.

So far, the plaintiffs have had little success in court. Last month, a federal judge dismissed the plaintiffs' case. An appeal is pending in the 10th Circuit, so there remains hope for legal remedies. But the integrity of the Two Elk Roadless Area has already been compromised. The bulldozers have already begun road and bridge construction and the chainsaws are buzzing as you read this. It's over for the ancient trees that have already been felled. And it's probably over for the lynx, assisted on its path to extinction in Colorado by this project.

I don't condone violence, regardless of the motivation. But I do think it's appropriate for some of the public furor to center on the activities - thus far considered to be legal but nevertheless reprehensible - of Vail Inc.

Perhaps some of the outrage could be focused on the elimination of the lynx, a native species whose right to exist in Colorado, in my view, is superior to the right of Vail Inc. and the Forest Service to break open new ski terrain in a roadless area for the sake of fattening corporate wallets.

Sure, I hope we catch and prosecute the perpetrators of these abhorrent crimes - on both sides. The tricky part is that what Vail Inc. is doing isn't considered a punishable offense, while arson is. n

Gretchen Biggs lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she is an attorney involved in the Vail litigation. This essay was also sent to other newspapers as part of the High Country News syndication project, Writers on the Range.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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