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for people who care about the West

A high country whodunit

  When gasoline-inspired flames devoured the massive, splendid Two Elk restaurant atop Vail Mountain in October 1998, many people automatically blamed environmental activists. After all, a federal judge had just allowed the Vail ski area, already the nation's largest and busiest, to expand into an area where evidence of the rare Canada lynx had been found several years before. Then, in an untraceable e-mail message, the amorphous Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility "on behalf of the lynx."

But others saw a much longer list of suspects; Vail Resorts, the ski area operator, had angered more than just environmentalists.

Nearby Minturn, an old railroad town, felt it had been mugged of millions of dollars in water rights. Merchants in Vail feared the leviathan corporation's continued expansion into lodging and retail sectors. Other ski area operators were infuriated by Vail's acquisition of its two largest rivals in neighboring Summit County - a transaction that failed every antitrust smell test.

Mistrust ran so deep that some wondered if the ski company had set the fires itself to gain sympathy and insurance money.

Daniel Glick, a special correspondent for Newsweek, arrived in this seething cauldron intent upon figuring out whodunit. He decided the bigger story was not the fire, but the rancid atmosphere around it. The resulting book, Powder Burn, might better be called Heartburn.

In vigorous, page-turning prose, Glick strings together Vail's story, from its 1957 gleam-in-the-eye conception to today's frenzy to slice up the last of the raw land for leisured enterprise, mostly in the form of second homes. It's a familiar story across the West.

Glick's best reporting covers the fire and its subsequent investigation, which has yet to name an official suspect. More ambitiously, he tries to unravel the increasingly concentrated power of Vail Resorts Inc. and its dangerous implications for Colorado's high country. He does this very well.

In other ways, Powder Burn disappoints. Time and again, the author misses the ironies, the nuances, the puzzling contradictions that make Western communities so interesting. He settles for the easier story, the by-the-numbers plot that pits God-fearing locals against the Evil Empire.

Ultimately, Powder Burn is entertaining, but it lacks the depth and insight to be illuminating.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Allen Best