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Powder Burn, by Daniel Glick

Review by Allen Best

Ski industry – May 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

Powder Burn: Arson, Money and Mystery on Vail Mountain
by Daniel Glick
published in 2001 by Public Affairs (Perseus Books Group)
ISBN: 1-58648-003-0

EARLY ON OCTOBER 19, 1998, gasoline-inspired flames licked around the thick logs of Douglas fir in Vail’s splendid and massive mountain-top Two Elk restaurant. Within hours, $12 million in damage to this and other buildings had been sustained.

Whodunit? Many people, even in Vail, assumed environmental activists. Those activists had just lost a court case, their last-ditch effort to block sprawling expansion at Vail, already the continent’s largest and busiest ski area. The expansion was about to begin in terrain where evidence of the endangered Canada lynx had been found several years before.

Others of us immediately saw a much longer list of suspects. Vail Associates, the ski area operator, had angered many. Nearby Minturn, an old railroad and mining town, felt it had been robbed of millions of dollars in water rights. Base-area merchants in Vail feared the already leviathan corporation’s continued expansion into lodging and retail sectors. Other ski area operators were infuriated by the U.S. Justice Department’s approval that allowed Vail to acquire the two largest ski areas in neighboring Summit County.

That approval violated every anti-trust smell test. Assuming this corporation was powerful enough to cut backroom deals in Washington D.C., might it also set fires to its own buildings in order to get sympathy and insurance money?

Daniel Glick, a special correspondent for Newsweek, arrived in this seething cauldron soon after the fires. He concluded the bigger story was not the fire, but rather the soured tensions that had made the fire seem, in retrospect, almost predictable. The book he has built around that theme might better be called “Heart Burn.”

He covers a great deal of ground, from the gleam-in-the-eye vision of Vail in 1957 to the post-fire fracas about the White River National Forest in 2000. His reporting is often solid, but sometimes mediocre.

First, there are just too many journalistic miscues. It’s Red Cliff, to cite one of dozens of examples, not Redcliff. Another minor annoyance is how he misquotes me. Several months before the fires, in an analysis of why Vail Resorts Inc. was so unpopular, I had mentioned that the “pudgy” physique of the corporation’s new CEO, Adam Aron, was not well-received in a valley that so highly values athleticism. Apparently relying solely upon Aron’s telling of the story, Glick reported it as a “local journalist complaining that Aron was fat.” He should have read what I wrote.

A more serious over-simplification occurs in his recounting of the “theft” of water from Minturn. It wasn’t as simple as “Evil Empire” vs. the good locals. Of the water board members who sided with Vail Associates, one was a retired dentist who spent afternoons sorting recycled materials, while another was a music store owner with hair down to the middle of his back.

Most important are the stories he omits. Why didn’t the Colorado Division of Wildlife show up to testify about lynx and elk habitat before the Eagle County commissioners? By law, county governments can limit use of federal lands within their jurisdictions if there are environmental consequences.

Yet, the state wildlife agency had already struck its peace with the federal government, depriving local government of any leverage over what happened within its own borders.

Instead of probing that important point, Glick concentrates on the nose-pierced activists from Boulder who showed up at the meeting and a former magazine publisher who got a laugh with his presentation of a lynx pelt.

Finally, the author (as do most of us writers) misses the joy that curiously mingles with the heartburn in these new Western places where people do eat the scenery.

GLICK’S BEST REPORTING is of the fire itself and the subsequent investigation. He also ably describes a trio of major turn-of-the-century themes starkly evident at Vail, but found here and there across the West.

First is the growing disparity of wealth. Second is the mad scramble to secure real estate in this final carving of the West. Third is the great and growing corporate influence in responding to that sizable market. It may be true, to paraphrase a quote from the 1950s, that “What’s good for Vail Resorts Inc. is good for Colorado, and vice versa.” The danger is in having Vail Resorts decide what’s good. That’s where Glick’s story about the Minturn water is appropriate — we may never know who was correct, because nearly bankrupt Minturn had to settle out of court.

With fast-paced, energetic writing, Powder Burn gets the big picture right. Anybody who thought the Vail story was as simple as a battle over lynx habitat could learn much from this book. However, those already familiar with growth-on-steroids resort areas probably won’t get any new insights. His conclusions echo the familiar questions we’ve puzzled about for years.

–Allen Best