If there was ever a lynx residing on the back side of Colorado's Vail Mountain, the shy bobcat cousin must have fled in terror on January 6 when approximately 6,000 powder-crazed skiers and snowboarders beelined for the ski resort's newest stretch of terrain, a 520-acre expansion called Blue Sky Basin. The throng swarmed the area's two new high-speed quads and stacked up in hour-long lift lines before finally frolicking through Blue Sky's broad glades, open bowls, and hip-deep stashes.
That opening-day scrum was somewhat ironic, since Blue Sky Basin has been at the center of a prolonged environmental battle that climaxed in a fiery arson attack by the Earth Liberation Front that destroyed Vail's mountaintop Two Elk Lodge in October 1998 (see "Powder Burn," January 1999). Blue Sky, formerly known as Category III, was quickly dubbed "B.S. Basin" by detractors who are convinced the project is merely a ruse to fuel real estate development on private land near its border. Longtime ecoprotester Jeff Berman, who recently founded Colorado Wild's Ski Area Citizens Coalition to fight expansions at Vail and a half-dozen other regional resorts, says the only reason he or his cohorts will ski the terrain is to ensure that Vail follows required mitigation measures to protect the lynx habitat. The coalition has already called attention to sensitive wetlands that were damaged by a logging road built to haul millions of board feet of timber from the Blue Sky site. "We're watching very, very closely," warns Berman.
And yet the land-grabbing shows no signs of slowing down. While timelines vary over the next few seasons, nearly a dozen U.S. ski areas plan to open expanded terrain, including Saddleback Mountain in Maine (1,800 acres) and Wyoming's Grand Targhee (195 acres), while Vail plans to add another 365 acres to Blue Sky. At press time, Berman and other environmentalists awaited a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to add the lynx to the endangered species list, which could derail at least a portion of those projects. But Forest Service officials caution that approved plans have already taken the possible lynx listing into account. "The lynx listing isn't going to preclude future expansions," says Ed Ryberg, who helps oversee the Forest Service's ski resort permits. "It's just going to complicate them."