Vail and the road to a recreational empire

  • The I-70 corridor of ski resorts in Colorado

    Diane Sylvain
  • Interstate 70 as it winds through Idaho Springs

    Allen Best photo
  • CHILLED: Diane Gansauer

    Colorado Wildlife Federation photo
  • Trailers in Eagle Valley are better than long commutes

    Allen Best photo
  • A trophy home west of Vail

    Allen Best photo
  • Cross-country skier looks toward Vail's expansion area

    Allen Best photo
  • SUMMER LIFT: Riding high at Vail

    Allen Best photo
  • WALKING THE NOT-SO-WILD WEST: Hiking near Vail Pass

    Allen Best photo
  • Ski runs rise above the Berry Creek Ranch development

    Allen Best photo

Note: three sidebar articles accompany this feature story: a variety of concerned Coloradans speak out in their own words about Vail, "Anger on the web," and an index of interesting facts about Vail and other Colorado ski areas.

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 Alps.

"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?"

It's a 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).

Some 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 the resorts.

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 Montana.

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 Basin.

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.

It 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 state.

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).

But for now, the fires have come to symbolize the undercurrents of opposition created by runaway recreational development in the I-70 corridor.

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 tourism.

Vail attracts money and power

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.

Vail: 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 market.

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.

The 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 mountains.

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.

Vail 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.

Year-round leisure

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.

Eagle 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.

Economic 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.

Stories of 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.

Some 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 happen:

"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 1912.

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 hearing.

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 snow.

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 industries.

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.

The fight 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 protect habitat.

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 endangered.

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 struck.

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 down.

"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 integrity.

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 along I-70.

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 expansion.

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 them.

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 in Colorado.

Backcountry recreationists also love the mountains

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 I-70.

Who's in charge of the future?

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 opinion.

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.

Eagle County's 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.

In 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 faltered.

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 Halloween.

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.

Today, 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 business.

What's wrong with the Alps?

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 anything else.

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 I-70 corridor.

"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 cableways.

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 avoid.

"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 says.

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 wall.

"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 newspaper.

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