$12 Million Blaze Targets Resort to Save Lynx Habitat
VAIL, CO -- On October 18, 1998, seven fires broke out before dawn on the 11,000-foot ridge of Vail Mountain in the Colorado Rockies. Before they could be extinguished, the blaze had destroyed part of this continent's largest ski resort, operated by Vail Associates Inc. (VA). In 1997, the corporation made net revenues of $291 million off of public lands.
The fires destroyed VA's 500-seat Two Elks Restaurant, ski patrol headquarters, a 500-seat ski shelter, and caused extensive damage to 4 of the ski corporation's 31 chair lifts on Vail Mountain. Damage was estimated to be $12 million. There were no injuries and none of the White River National Forest-where VA manages seven square miles of ski terrain-was burned.
The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) issued a communique accepting responsibility for the fires saying the action was intended "to stop the destruction of natural habitat and the exploitation of the environment." The ELF went on to state: "Putting profit ahead of Colorado's wildlife will not be tole-rated. We will be back if this greedy corporation continues to trespass into wild and unroaded areas."
This action comes on the heels of a recent court decision allowing VA to move forward with its $14 million expansion dubbed Category III, which would add 2,200 acres of ski terrain to Vail Resort and destroy 885 acres of wilderness in the Two Elks Roadless Area. Until now, elk have migrated each year to give birth in an area where ski runs, four chair lifts, a 20,000-square-foot restaurant, a ski patrol building, two warming shelters, and food service buildings are planned to be built in the CAT III expansion. Additional expansion will see 12.2 miles of new roads and ski ways in the previously roadless area and will destroy a wildlife corridor between the Eagle's Nest and Holy Cross Wilderness Areas.
The ELF also says the CAT III expansion by VA "will ruin the last best lynx habitat in the state [of Colorado]," a concern that even Colorado Division of Wildlife biologists admit would be the result of CAT III. "If there is any critical lynx habitat in the state, this is it," reads an interagency memo to the U.S Forest Service (USFS) by Robert Laske, regional manager for the Division of Wildlife. The memo refers to the destruction of at least 182 acres of wilderness within the Two Elks Roadless Area (TERA) where lynx tracks were seen in 1991.
The rapidly declining lynx population has been the cause of another long and bitter court battle that environmentalist hopefully will win, giving full protection to lynx in the lower 48 states under the Endangered Species Act. Lynx populations in the lower 48 are estimated to be less than 400 animals with about one hundred in Montana, 75 to 100 in Washington, maybe 50 in Idaho, 20 to 50 in Maine, and scattered individuals in Minnesota, Wyoming, Oregon, Colorado, and possibly Michigan.
No evidence of lynx in Colorado has been documented in what is traditionally their southernmost range, but Division of Wildlife field supervisor Lee Carlson believes there are as few as six lynx in the state. "We don't think they're extinct, but they're probably going extinct if we don't do something." The last known lynx to reside in Colorado were a pair trapped in Vail in 1973. One died and the other escaped. A lawyer representing environmentalists opposed to CAT III adds, "The only reason the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has not found any lynx back there [in the TERA] is because they haven't looked."
While commercial trapping of lynx continues in Alaska, Montana, and Canada, the major threat to the lynx's continued existence in the lower 48 states is habitat destruction and human intrusion. Logging, oil, gas, agricultural, and recreational industries are all responsible for invading and desecrating the lynx's last stronghold. "Currently there are no standards nor guidelines for logging (or other activities) in lynx habitat in any of our national forests," says Jasper Carlton of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, one of the groups that have sued the USFWS to list the lynx under the Endangered Species Act.
The USFWS has declared that ski development and other winter recreation such as that in Vail, Colorado, harm lynx directly, as these developments not only destroy lynx habitat but also open up exclusive lynx territory to competitive predators less affected by human activities. But some wildlife agencies in states with suspected or known lynx populations oppose federal protection for the lynx because of the impact such a listing might have on timber, oil, and gas development, cattle grazing, road building, ski expansions, and hunting and fishing access.
The elusive and shy lynx requires older forests with downed trees for their dens, for protection from severe weather, and as covered corridors that link their dens to habitats of the snowshoe hare, their principle prey. Lynx live at elevations above 4,000 feet where there is snow most of the year. Like other forest carnivores, lynx are an "indicator" species, meaning their presence represents ecological health and balance in the forests they inhabit.
Since 1991, environmentalists have petitioned to have the lynx listed under the ESA, but the USFWS rejected the petitions arguing there was "insufficient evidence" to justify the action. In 1993, a court settlement forced the USFWS to consider the lynx listing in the lower 48 states, a consideration it decided not to act on in December 1997 despite the recommendations of its own biologists. When 15 environmental organizations sued the USFWS for its refusal to list the lynx, the government agency finally responded by recommending listing the lynx as "threatened" rather than "endangered," a status that would extend fewer protections than full endangered status. A listing is expected by July 1999 when the USFWS is bound by law to enact lynx protection.
Listing the lynx as threatened rather than endangered is a political appeasement to economic interests who fear full ESA protection of lynx would severely curtail their commercial activities in lynx habitat. Nowhere is this more evident than in Vail. Responding to the U.S. Forest Service's approval in Fall 1997 of the Vail CAT III expansion into prime lynx habitat, Colorado's Division of Wildlife biologist Jim Toolen said: "The politics involved in all of this are way beyond anything I feel comfortable dealing with."
The USFS approved CAT III knowing that the impending ESA protection of lynx habitat in Colorado would prohibit it. Dr. Gary Koehler, acknowledged by the USFS as one of the nation's leading lynx experts, says CAT III could doom lynx in Colorado and, at a minimum, would "hamper lynx recovery efforts" in the state as the majority of lynx sightings in Colorado have been in the Vail area. While such actions by the USFS possibly constitute violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, they definitely go against the USFS's own Forest Plan standards which supposedly protect wildlife. In Vail where CAT III violated those standards, the USFS simply altered the standards rather than prohibited the planned expansion.
Local environmentalists like forest and range ecologist Rocky Smith believe that in the battle between the lynx and Vail ski expansion, the long-furred wildcat loses. "The USFS seems much more interested in protecting Vail's pocket-book than in protecting extremely valuable eco-logical resources." It is estimated that it will take 12,000 logging truckloads to haul away the six million board feet of virgin spruce and fir from the VA invaded Two Elks Roadless Area. The VA will only pay the USFS one to two cents on every dollar it makes for the "use" of our public national forests.
The fight to keep VA out of the Two Elks began years ago when the cor-poration first proposed CAT III, a follow-up to its CAT I and CAT II expansions that began in the 1960s. Currently atop Vail Mountain, numerous winter recreation activities are served including ice skating, tubing, sledding, a half pipe for snowboarders, and snowmobiling. VA's expansion on what it calls "Adventure Ridge" would add facilities that would serve an estimated 220,000 more skiers annually. Also planned are year-round facilities, including an in-line skating arena, new restaurants, and an outdoor climbing wall. Such activities violate the National Forest Ski Area Permit Act which allows only "ski operations and appropriate ancillary facilities," but, as VA has proven, economic interests can always override regulatory laws and public opposition.
In 1997 when the USFS solicited public comments on CAT III, it received 400 letters opposed to the expansion and only 5 letters of support, all from ski industry-supported individuals. When Eagle County Commis-sioners held three of their own public hearings on CAT III in spring 1998, voices of opposition dominated all the meetings. It was estimated that public opinion was 90 percent against the expansion. Yet in May, county commissioners unanimously voted in favor of CAT III. A Colorado Ski Country USA spokesman defended the expansion saying, "It's not unlike Universal Studios adding a new ride every year...the Colorado ski industry is competing against Las Vegas, Orlando (Disney World), and cruise vacations."
In June 1998, environmentalists filed a lawsuit against VA to prevent CAT III, arguing that it would destroy elk calving grounds, habitat for the boreal owl marten and mountain lion, and would interfere with plans to re-introduce lynx into Colorado. By September, the U.S. District Court ruled in favor of VA and refused to issue a preliminary injunction to stay the planned expansion while opponents ap-pealed the USFWS decision allowing CAT III. On October 14, 1998, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver also rejected a request for an emergency injunction, thereby clearing the way for the actual beginning of construction south of the existing ski area.
On October 16, 1998, VA began cutting trees in the TERA with the knowledge that by the time USFS permission for CAT III was appealed by environmentalists, the contested habitat for lynx, elk, marten and other wildlife would already be destroyed. With no avenues left open for legal recourse, the ELF swung into action and within 48 hours of the first tree falling in the TERA, Vail Associates Inc. found themselves the target of what has been called the largest raid by environmental guerrillas since Crazy Horse and his Lakota warriors burned down Fort Kearny and chased out gold miners, winning what is now called Red Cloud's War.
It wasn't just environmentalists who were upset with VA's actions in Colorado. Local residents have long complained about this corporate ski giant's behavior that has created an economic monopoly. In Vail, Colorado, VA operated 31 chair lifts, 8 hotels, 82 restaurants, and many other ski-related businesses in the surrounding area, including three other ski resorts it recently bought out. "Vail Resorts used to be the 800-pound gorilla; they are now the 4,000-pound gorilla," says Robert McLaurin, Vail's town manager.
With Colorado as the nation's most popular ski area, VA has dominated the industry by buying out competitors and recently starting a joint venture with the state's largest sporting goods chain. Lift tickets at VA's ski areas rank the highest price in the nation at $61 each. Last winter, $1.6 million was made, comprising a large portion of Colorado's ski industry revenues which totaled more than $4 billion in the last two seasons. "The corporate world is buying up everything and trying to monopolize it," says Geoff Wells, an independent ski store manager who was prevented from opening a ski store in Vail by VA.
While the ELF may have cost VA $12 million in economic damage, such an amount is just a drop in the bucket to this corporate giant which has invested $200 million into Vail Resort's commercial operations in Colorado in the last two years alone, including helping to establish direct flights into Vail from 13 American cities. Vail has long been a play-ground for the world's wealthy elite, but VA's corporate behavior has begun to create stark class divisions and subsequent economic growth has driven property values sky high. An acre of private land in Vail now averages $1 million.
VA's growth in Vail signals a threat not only to the TERA, but to all the surrounding forest lands-both public and private. VA recently admitted that it has an option to buy 2,000 acres of private land just one mile from the CAT III expansion on Vail's frontside. VA has been investigating the possibility of building a new ski base area here with village-to-village gondolas and luxury condominiums to add to its already 1,300 residential condos. "Consideration of this development exacerbates cumulative impacts, particularly with respect to the lynx movement corridor and elk winter range issues," says VA's own privately-hired biologist.
Right now across public national forests in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Maine, Minnesota, Michigan, and Colorado, wilderness habitat that may very well be the last refuge for forest predators like the lynx is being destroyed. With government support, these environmental crimes are being committed before the ecological impact on endangered wildlife can be measured, let alone prevented. The logical conclusion is simply that the USFS and USFWS cannot be trusted to protect these rare magnificent animals.
The USFS and USFWS have failed in obligation to protect the lynx and other endangered wildlife. Regard-less of any of the economic consequence ESA protection will have on private industry, both agencies are mandated by law to protect wildlife in danger of extinction. Yet the USFS which oversees the continuing destruction of lynx habitat, the USFWS which is bowing to political pressure by not extending full ESA protection to the lynx, and state wildlife agencies who have resisted taking the necessary actions to save the lynx, continue to serve industry before wildlife and public interests.
How many of us have ever gazed into the eyes of a wild lynx? How many of us, let alone our grandchildren, ever will if we continue to wage war upon them with the steel trap, bulldozer, and chain saw? These shy predators are not disappearing. We know exactly where they are going as the last of the old growth forests they depend on for habitat is commercially developed. If we do not do something now, even scientists and biologists are projecting that the lynx and many other familiar races of wildlife in the lower 48 states will become extinct. And for what? A Rocky Mountain lynx pelt goes for $75 on the international fur market, just a little more than a lift ticket on Vail Mountain.
As long as federal and state governments fail to enforce their own laws to
protect rare and endangered wildlife, we can be grateful that the ELF is willing
to take action to protect the lynx nation's homelands. While FBI and ATF agents
from the domestic terrorism division pour over the west looking for ELF
volunteers, they ignore the criminal actions of Vail Associates and other
private interests waging war in this continent's last 2 percent of undeveloped
and roadless wilderness. Those unbiased by media and industry disinformation
will have no problem recognizing who the real eco-terrorists are in the last
ancient forest lands where the refugees from the fiercely wild lynx nation still