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By JACK REED
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001
Before dawn on Oct. 17, 1998, an elk hunter camping on Vail Mountain, Colo., heard an odd crackling noise, looked out his tent and screamed, "The mountain's on fire!" thus becoming the first witness to a daring act of arson. Someone had torched Vail Resorts' towering Two Elk Lodge, patrol headquarters and four ski lifts. By the time fire trucks could wend their way up the mountain, little remained of the structures.
Police officers had a challenge on their hands. The $12-million fire consumed most of the evidence, and since ski season hadn't started, the only witnesses were a few hunters who saw nothing but flames. But that wasn't the investigators' biggest problem. They soon discovered that the list of people mad enough at the resort's corporate owner to torch the place pretty much equaled the Vail population. "They've p---ed off so many people on so many levels, you could put a dart board on the wall to take your pick of suspects," said a Vail business owner.
So begins Powder Burn: Arson, Money and Mystery on Vail Mountain, a work of investigative journalism that begins as a whodunit and ends as an indictment of the supposed victim.
Vail was founded in 1961 by two colorful characters, a reclusive miner and a ski bum, who recognized the potential in a piece of Colorado wilderness. It is an artificial town, designed as "a perfect ersatz Alps village" for visiting skiers and those who serve them. The place changed owners several times, went broke and ended up in the hands of Leon Black, a Wall Street protege of junk bond king Michael Milken, and a like-minded group. Vail Resorts Inc. went public and purchased Vail and three other ski resorts.
Using political connections that reach back to Washington, Vail Resorts played hardball with employees, local business owners and environmentalists who were growing increasingly concerned about its operations. The company was fattening its bottom line but damaging its reputation. "(Vail Resorts) is good at what they do in the same way a hyena is good at what it does," one Vail businessman explained.
Vail Resorts' most controversial project was a major expansion on the back side of the mountain, which involved clear-cutting 885 acres of old growth forest on public land. The area intrudes into wintering grounds for elk and prime habitat for the endangered lynx, which was being reintroduced into Colorado. Using the Endangered Species Act, environmentalists took the fight over the lynx to court, where Vail Resorts won each round. The day before bulldozers were to begin clearing the land, the buildings were set ablaze.
While the FBI immediately suspected protesters who were in town to block the bulldozers' path, it also figured someone with inside knowledge of the resort had to be involved. The agency made little progress until three days after the fire when an encrypted e-mail message arrived claiming responsibility: "On behalf of the lynx, five buildings and four ski lifts at Vail were reduced to ashes. . . . We will be back if this greedy corporation continues to trespass into wild and unroaded areas." It was from Earth Liberation Front.
ELF is a shadowy group, apparently formed by dropouts from the militant wing of the environmental movement. It cooperates with the similarly named Animal Liberation Front, which has raided animal research facilities but failed in an arson attempt at a Colorado gun club that shoots prairie dogs for sport. ALF members were in Vail at the time but denied setting the fire. The investigation lagged when the FBI was diverted by another nearby event: the shootings at Columbine High School. No one has been arrested in the Vail fire.
Arson is the latest tactic in the growing practice of ecotage, an escalation of the relatively harmless mayhem called monkey-wrenching. ELF has claimed credit for other fires around the country, including a logging company's headquarters in Oregon, but the group is careful not to injure people or animals. Apparently working in small, independent cells, ELF has so far eluded the FBI's efforts to infiltrate the group. (A recent arrest in a New York fire, however, could be the first breakthrough).
Many in Vail had another suspect in mind: Vail Resorts. An earlier (and equally suspicious) fire at a company hotel in Beaver Creek had gotten rid of an aging building that was replaced and enlarged with insurance money. Many Vail residents suspected an inside job. The outcome of the Vail Mountain fire only increased the buzz. Less than a year after the elk hunter shouted "fire," Vail Resorts began work on two projects: the 885-acre expansion now called Blue Sky Basin and reconstruction of a bigger and better Two Elk Lodge and patrol headquarters using insurance money.
Powder Burn author Daniel Glick presents a thoroughly researched and (until the end) objective account of the events. While he gives us a look into the secretive world of radical environmentalism, Glick's greatest accomplishment is his insightful critique of the ski resort business. Contrary to the romantic image it tries to portray, skiing is just the latest extractive industry, after mining and logging, to capitalize on the West's natural resources. It gobbles up public forests and scarce water resources, mainly to make artificial snow "just so that thoracic surgeons from Atlanta and investment bankers from Chicago could be guaranteed skiing at Thanksgiving."
Glick appropriately withholds his editorial comment until the book's epilogue. "The existence of ELF, or organizations like it, shouldn't surprise us," he says. "Whether the radical fringe of the environmental spectrum was involved or not involved, many people believe the system is so skewed in favor of people like those who run (Vail Resorts) that the only sensible reaction is to act outside the system."
And the lynx? Colorado released dozens of Canadian and Alaskan lynx in mountains about 100 miles south of Vail. One intrepid lynx headed north, but when it tried to cross Interstate 70 near Vail, it was crushed by a car.
- Jack Reed is a St. Petersburg Times editorial writer.
Arson, Money and Mystery on Vail Mountain
By Daniel Glick
Public Affairs, $25