Arson isn’t all that’s wrong on Vail Mountain

Essay by Gretchen Biggs

Vail – December 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Arson Isn’t All That’s Wrong On Vail Mountain

by Gretchen Biggs

FIRES SET BY ARSONISTS atop Colorado’s Vail Mountain have unleashed a storm of condemnation, a media feeding frenzy, and a no-holds-barred federal investigation.

But the powerful public outrage provoked by the arson has obscured more important events occurring on the backside of Vail Mountain. To my way of thinking, there was just as much to be outraged about before the arson.

What we seem to have forgotten is that over the past decade hundreds of individuals and a coalition of environmental, wildlife, and animal-rights organizations have been fiercely battling the immensely wealthy and politically powerful Vail corporation.

They have been trying to persuade Vail Associates, Inc. to cancel or at least reduce its planned expansion into virgin, old-growth forest and critical habitat for the biologically imperiled lynx.

The section of public land into which Vail sought to cut roads and ski runs is a de facto wilderness called the “Two Elk Roadless Area.” Located between the Holy Cross Wilderness and the Eagles Nest Wilderness, it provides an important corridor for migrating wildlife.

Vail Inc. doesn’t own this land — we do. And the public wanted it to be left undeveloped — as demonstrated by citizen comments received by the U.S. Forest Service in 1997 which ran 80 to 1 in opposition to the project.

But Vail Inc. and the Forest Service were not responsive to the grassroots efforts or to the opposition within the community of Vail. After their administrative appeal was rejected by the Forest Service, the public interest plaintiffs filed suit in Federal District Court asking that the Court stop the Vail expansion based on multiple alleged violations of environmental laws.

Central to the court debate is an Environmental Impact Statement (the document the Forest Service is required by law to produce and which is supposed to be an objective analysis which determines whether or not a proposed project should be allowed) which, tellingly, was underwritten by Vail Inc.

NOW, the integrity of the Two Elk roadless area has already been compromised. Bulldozers have begun road and bridge construction, and the chainsaws are buzzing as you read this. It’s over for the ancient trees that have already been felled. And it’s probably over for the lynx, assisted on its path to extinction in Colorado by this project.

I don’t condone violence, regardless of the motivation. But I do think it’s appropriate for some of the public furor to center on the reprehensible activities of Vail Inc.

Perhaps some of the outrage could be focused on the elimination of the lynx, a native species whose right to exist in Colorado, in my view, is superior to the right of Vail Inc. and the Forest Service to break open new ski terrain in a roadless area for the sake of fattening corporate wallets.

Sure, I hope we catch and prosecute the perpetrators of these abhorrent crimes — on both sides. The tricky part is that what Vail Inc. is doing isn’t considered a punishable offense, while arson is.

Gretchen Biggs is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News based in Paonia, Colorado. She is a solo practitioner in Boulder, Colorado and the attorney for the Sierra Club in the Vail litigation.