Ski resorts pump up ecoterrorism defenses

Hired sentries call the measures 'kind of a joke'

  • The wreckage of Vail's Two Elk Lodge after an arson firein 1998

    Andrew Holman

TELLURIDE, Colo. - The security worker held up a massive black-light flashlight and a night vision scope, commenting wryly, "I don't have any idea how to use these."

But as a September evening fell, the Telluride Ski & Golf Company employee prepared to spend the next 12 hours driving a new, red Ford pickup truck through an alpine basin that is the site of the largest ski area expansion in the West this autumn. The job: look out for anything suspicious.

Since arsonists destroyed Vail Mountain's Two Elk Restaurant and caused $12 million worth of damage in October 1998 - an apparent protest against Vail Resort Inc.'s expansion of its ski slopes into lynx habitat - ski area operators have begun to take security more seriously (HCN, 11/9/98: Vail fires outrage community).

Skiers and snowboarders aren't seeing any change on the slopes. But where resorts are expanding onto new terrain or upgrading older facilities, says Michael Berry of the National Ski Areas Association in Lakewood, Colo., resort managers are trying to protect themselves against the threat of attack by so-called ecoterrorists.

"Acts of terrorism are part of the fabric of our lives," Berry said on the day of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. "Acts of terrorism change everything, forever."

Guarding a forest

Telluride is adding 733 acres to the 1,050-acre ski area that first opened in 1972. The resort is constructing three new lifts this autumn in Prospect Basin, a large bowl south of the existing slopes, and cutting an estimated 19,000 trees in the Uncompahgre National Forest to make ski runs. Gas tanks are locked on heavy equipment left in the area, and the pilot of a helicopter leased to fly lift towers into place sleeps in a camper beside his chopper.

Still, guarding a ski area isn't like guarding a bank. Telluride security personnel say they've seen nothing but marmots and elk on their appointed rounds, plus the occasional hiker or mountain biker who ignores trail closures.

"Certainly, if ELF (Earth Liberation Front, the shadowy environmental group blamed for the Vail fires) or ALF (Animal Liberation Front) wants to get into any area, they can do it," says John Cohn, chief of security for Telluride Ski & Golf Company. "We're surrounded by thousands of acres of national forest; there's no way we could control it all. I could have 50 guys up there, and I couldn't stop it. We have a presence up there to see if there's anything unusual."

Telluride security managers attended a conference earlier this year in which Federal Bureau of Investigation agents briefed representatives from Colorado and Wyoming ski resorts about ecoterrorism. "They said there is no profile (of potential terrorists)," Cohn recalls. "These are regular folks, period, that believe in what they believe in, and you're not going to find a profile." But, he said, there has been a sea change in the way the industry thinks about terrorism: "Absolutely. Everybody was freaked out by what happened at Two Elk. It was horrible."

"The Vail fires put quite a scare into people," concurs Jennifer Rowan, editor and publisher of Ski Area Management, a trade magazine published in Connecticut. "The fear is there ... I don't think it's unreasonable for Telluride to take that (security) step. It's unpredictable. Nobody can know."

Nevertheless, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, officials at Vail Resorts, Inc., along with the trade group Colorado Ski Country USA, said they had no plans to further beef up security, nor had they heard of any.

They know what they're doing

Ski resort worries about ecoterrorism are not unfounded. An apparent, minor act of monkeywrenching happened in July at California's Heavenly Ski Resort. A length of tree branch was wired to the cable of a new gondola to trip safety circuits as the cable moved; the letters ELF were spelled out on the ground nearby.

Last autumn, several pieces of heavy equipment on an unrelated project were vandalized in Telluride. About $9,000 worth of damage was done to two excavators that were being used to channel and reconstruct the San Miguel River. Vandals cut hydraulic lines, broke windows and threw the vehicles' keys into the water.

"Whoever did this knew what they were doing," says Steve Smith, field coordinator for the Aquatic and Wetland Company. The Fort Lupton, Colo., company is doing the river work, a $600,000 project paid for by the town of Telluride. "They had some machine background. They knew where to hurt us."

As was the case after the Vail fires, no one was arrested for the Telluride damage. Since then, Smith said, his company has invested in travel trailers and now makes sure employees camp near their equipment at night. The company has finished its work in Telluride and is now reshaping streams at the ski resorts of Copper Mountain and Breckenridge, Colo.

In Utah, officials at Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort asked staff to be especially vigilant this past summer while that ski area was building a new, high-speed quad chairlift to connect Snowbird to the adjacent Alta ski area.

"In today's environment, just about anything could happen and does happen," says Fred Rollins, director of public relations for Snowbird. He won't discuss details of Snowbird's security effort except to say they have had "a well-rounded security plan in place, on an ongoing basis, day by day and night by night."

A prudent presence

Telluride's security effort is being implemented only in the expansion area - not the existing ski slopes - and only for the duration of construction, planned to end in early November. Security staffers are paid $15 an hour. Chief of Security Cohn estimates he'll spend between $30,000 and $50,000 on security for the expansion, which is valued at about $14 million.

"We really don't think there is a threat," Cohn says. "In the end, prudence dictated that for the cost of the expansion, the cost of having somebody up there was awfully small. We would be remiss if we didn't have somebody up there checking on things."

Telluride security staff say they were given almost no training; they were handed the keys to the truck and a cell phone. "The whole thing is kind of a joke," said one staffer.

Another staffer was "bored to tears" by the job, but said the money was good. Nobody asked these employees about their attitudes toward monkeywrenching when they applied for the job, they said. One staffer indicated a certain sympathy for people opposed to the expansion, which was bitterly resisted by many Telluride residents. "I'm a little disappointed in Telluride," this individual said. "We've kind of become complicit in this development."

Another security worker claimed to own a copy of Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, by Dave Foreman - a bible for monkeywrenchers.

Hal Clifford writes from Telluride, Colorado.


  • Telluride Ski & Golf Company, 970/728-6900;
  • Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort, 801/742-2222;
  • National Ski Areas Association, 303/987-1111.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Hal Clifford

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