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.
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 roam.