Powder Burn


Outside Magazine, January 1999


Powder Burn
Whatever the suspects behind the worst act of eco-terrorism in U.S. history hoped to accomplish by torching Vail, their agenda likely didn't include helping the company that owns the resort and harming those looking to protect a beloved mountain. The fire just happened to go that way.

By Robert S. Boynton


I'd been in Vail barely 48 hours when I spied my very first eco-terrorist: a member of the Earth Liberation Front, the organization that had recently taken credit for setting the fires that did $12 million in damage on Vail Mountain in the early morning hours of October 19. Identifying him wasn't all that difficult. He wore head-to-toe army fatigues and an "ELF" name tag on his jacket. Then I noticed that the hooded guy sipping a beer next to the ELF firebrand looked suspiciously like Ted Kaczynski — a hunch confirmed by the sign he had boldly pinned to his flannel shirt, which showed a cartoon bomb bracketed by "Uni" and "er."

Halloween in Vail is pretty spooky, taking place as it does after the last golfers have straggled home and before the first overwhelming wave of skiers arrives. A visual hodgepodge of alpine Austrian kitsch and boxy 1970s-style condominiums, Vail's aesthetic combines — not all that successfully — the sterility of a planned community and the cheesy glitz of a Santa's workshop display. With few restaurants and bars open in this shoulder season and most of the area's permanent residents having decamped to the less expensive towns down-valley, the streets were empty except for the occasional cowboy or lonely ghost. In the eerie quiet, the raucous ELFers stood out. Late in the evening, I came upon a group of merry eco-terrorists at Garfinkel's bar, where they gleefully swung gasoline cans and highway flares, dancing to the throbbing beat. "Fuck Vail Associates! Long live ELF!" one of them screamed, a big grin splitting his grease-blackened face.

Frankly, the levity was surprising, considering how near to disaster the town had passed; if ELF's actions had delayed the early-November opening, Vail would have experienced some truly hard times. Even so, the mood in the hours immediately after the fire was charged. Rumors hurtled around with the speed of a careering luge. Some said all 31 chairlifts had been damaged, and one New York radio station reported a terrorist-fueled apocalypse — that the entire mountain was engulfed in flame. The facts were only slightly less impressive: four lifts and three buildings damaged or destroyed — the largest being the 33,000-square-foot Two Elk Lodge, which was reduced to a heap of ash and twisted metal. Though Vail Associates, the conglomerate that runs Vail and Beaver Creek, as well as nearby Breckenridge and Keystone, promised that the mountain would be fully functioning by Christmas, the fires proved to be the costliest act of eco-sabotage in U.S. history and, as some were already speculating, perhaps a harbinger of tactics to come.

A communiqué from ELF was faxed to a local radio station three days after the fires, claiming they had been set "on behalf of the [Canadian] lynx" — an endangered species in whose name a coalition of environmental groups had been suing to stop VA's expansion into a national forest area known as Category III. Much to VA's dismay, ELF announced that the fires were only a warning, a shot across the bow. "We will be back if this greedy corporation continues to trespass into wild and unroaded areas," it wrote. "For your safety and convenience, we strongly advise skiers to choose other destinations."

A second ELF communiqué arrived on Halloween, heralding the weeklong "International Earth Liberation Nights," a time to "target those who are destroying this planet and our lives." Understandably, this put VA even more on edge. When a briefcase was found abandoned near the Lionshead base area that morning, a bomb squad was quickly dispatched; after some gentle ministrations by an officer in a bulky Kevlar suit, it was discovered to contain a typewriter. Still, with opening day only a week away and the 1999 World Alpine Ski Championships scheduled for January, VA was worried that its wonderland locale would become better known for its perils than its powder. Extra measures were taken to protect high-ranking VA executives, and an outside security firm that specialized in eco-sabotage was quietly placed on retainer.

In the weeks before the fires, life in Vail had been much easier, the moral universe neatly painted in bold — if simplistic — strokes of black and white. To the casual participant, the players were cleanly cut cardboard figures: the natty and rapacious VA executives versus the scruffy but noble environmentalists. These latter forces had been winning in the court of public (if not legal) opinion, since most Vail citizens, and quite a few outsiders, viewed the controversial Category III expansion as confirmation of their fears that, despite its protests to the contrary, VA would continue to do what a well-run corporation always does: grow.

The $14 million-plus Category III project — a 20,000-square-foot restaurant, four lifts, and an additional 2,000 acres of developed and undeveloped slopes that will increase Vail's size by about 40 percent — was alternately denounced as part of a sneaky real estate maneuver whose true aim was to enhance the value of the Gilman property (an adjacent 6,000-acre parcel of land that VA has an option to develop) and an environmentally insensitive act of corporate hubris. VA's insistence that Category III was necessary for ski-related reasons was either ignored or ridiculed.

In any case, the proposed development allowed many valley residents the pleasure of further demonizing both VA and the executives who operate it. Then everything changed. On October 14, a Denver district court judge denied an injunction against Category III, clearing the way for Vail's expansion into the Canadian lynx's apparent home. That same week an article was published in Forbes calling VA's chairman, Adam Aron, "the most unpopular man in Vail." And on the chilly morning of October 19, unknown arsonists ignited Vail Mountain.

Other than a few patches of snow clinging to the peak, the mountain is verdant and loamy, backdropping the town like a dormant volcano. After checking in with a lone security guard, I drive up the steep, brown, oozing roads past heaps of charred debris and onto the high, narrow ridge along which the fires were set. Only the concrete foundation of the ski patrol headquarters remains; so intense were the flames that the 150-foot pines nearby were singed from bottom to top. Lift 5's disabled motor sits in the mud, keeled over like a decaying skeleton, the chairs it once pulled resting like a row of collapsed benches on the grassy meadow below. A mile farther along the ridge I come to the enormous Two Elk Lodge, which took two years to build and seated 550 people. Workmen use blowtorches to disentangle the molten mess that was fused together by the fire's tremendous heat. Cleared of the rubble at its center, the building looks like it was obliterated by a bomb.

The fires were discovered at 4 a.m. by elk hunters, who tried to douse the flames with snow. An alarm at the ski patrol headquarters trilled first, followed by alarms in the Lodge 20 minutes later. Soon the flames could be seen from 20 miles away. The Lodge's 66,000-gallon sprinkler system was quickly overwhelmed, and with only six men on duty at the Vail Fire Department, fire trucks had to be summoned from all across Eagle County and beyond. One by one they lumbered up the 11,250-foot mountain, disgorged their 500-gallon water tanks, and lumbered back down again. A Utah fire inspector told the Rocky Mountain News that the scene was consistent with ELF's tactics. "They prefer inaccessible places that will take the fire department forever to get to," he said. Airspace over Vail Mountain was closed all day Monday as National Guard helicopters scoured the area for more fires. The investigation immediately swung into action: Agents from the FBI and ATF descended on Vail to track down hundreds of leads; arson investigators trundled teams of specially trained dogs all over the mountain, searching for clues and for other incendiary devices that may have been planted. Evidence, as quickly as it was discovered, was whisked to a Denver crime lab for analysis.

As the largest and arguably the most respected ski conglomerate in North America, VA was terrified of the public relations problem presented by the fires. ("Vail Set Ablaze, Snow Melts, Tourists Die!") Before the last ember was extinguished, VA began damage control. It circulated 17 scripted responses to questions about the arson to its employees and the media; it sent letters to 400,000 skiers in its database, and another 20,000 letters went out to travel agents. All told, it was an impressively thorough and fast response, in keeping with the corporate savvy that defines the current ownership.

With 4,600 acres of skiable terrain and 40 percent of the Colorado ski market, VA is part of the trend toward consolidation that has reduced the number of U.S. ski resorts from 700 to 500 since 1986. Controlled by Apollo Advisors, a $7 billion investment fund run by Michael Milken protégé Leon Black, VA is a piece of a diversified portfolio that includes Empire Kosher Poultry, Florsheim Shoes, and Samsonite.

Since going public as Vail Resorts Inc. in 1997 in a $266 million stock offering, VA has transformed itself into a vertically integrated, full-service leisure conglomerate with four ski resorts, 82 restaurants, seven hotels, 1,800 condominiums, two golf courses (and two underway), a half interest in Vail's largest real estate company, a travel agency, four private clubs, and a television station. Given that the number of new skiers is either flat or growing slowly, VA has devised a two-pronged strategy to remain profitable, simultaneously squeezing more dollars out of each skier and decreasing its reliance on ski-related businesses as a source of revenue. In 1998 Vail made $74 per skier (up from $60 the year before) and pushed the portion of its income derived solely from lift tickets to an all-time low of 42 percent. Though skier visits were down in 1998, VA increased its cash flow by 21 percent and grew at a rate 13 times faster than the rest of the ski industry.

The bet at VA is that, though wealthy baby boomers are skiing less, they will still buy second homes. VA's real estate division has increased its revenues from $4.6 million to $84.2 million since 1993. Overall, the Vail Valley saw $1.2 billion in real estate sales in 1998, with another billion or so projected for this year. Sprouting like mushrooms after a rain, sprawling condo developments have burst forth at an unprecedented rate, and VA has managed to reap much of this harvest: The 53 lots in its recent Bachelor Gulch development, priced between $425,000 and $1.6 million, sold out in a single afternoon, for a total of $42 million.

Figures such as these have led critics to charge that VA, like its behemoth brethren Intrawest and the American Skiing Company, is as much a real estate operation as a skiing operation — a perception that deepened when Adam Aron, the brilliant marketer who had previously worked at Norwegian Cruise Line, Hyatt Hotels, Pan Am, and United Airlines, became its new chairman in 1996. A portly salesman not known for his sartorial splendor or physical grace, Aron might have been central casting's choice for the role of the hated outsider, an East Coast sharpie whose vision for Vail is informed by the money-hoovering successes of Las Vegas and Disney World. After coming to VA, Aron increased its marketing budget to $20 million, initiated a frequent-skier program (inspired by the frequent-flier system he invented at Pan Am), a Vail charge card/lift ticket, and a sophisticated new booking system that enables tourists to make all their travel arrangements with a single phone call. And in 1997, Aron went on a $310 million buying spree, doubling VA's resort assets by acquiring Breckenridge and Keystone.

In conversation, Aron is charming and reflective, even when the subject is why someone is trying to torch his mountain. "This whole debate isn't really about the Gilman property or the lynx. That's a red herring. It's about the question of how you manage growth here over the next few decades," he says. "We believe that growth is inevitable, while the other side believes they can stop it. Change leads to anxiety, and we have dumped a lot of change on Vail, and that's why I think there is so much grumbling. If VA let the status quo prevail and did nothing new for the next five years, I assume people would adjust to it. But the reality is that we're a public company with responsibility to our stockholders, and we're going to continue to grow."

Mutual funds and pension plans aside, there were probably few groups who were scrutinizing VA's corporate strategy more closely than the Earth Liberation Front. Though its lineage is appropriately murky, ELF is thought to have originated at a 1992 Earth First! meeting in Brighton, England, during which some members, dismayed by what they considered the mainstream drift of the once radical organization, formed an underground group to perpetrate covert but showy acts of sabotage. Past ELF "actions" include spray-painting the Mexican consulate in Boston to protest the treatment of peasants in Chiapas, burning a BLM corral in Burns, Oregon, to protest its wild horse program, and a recent series of fires in Agriculture Department buildings in Olympia, Washington.

The fact that ELF had no previous connection to Vail has led some to speculate that the group is taking credit for someone else's deeds or, alternatively, being used to deflect attention from the real culprit. Either way, investigators believe the arsonists possessed an insider's knowledge of the area and a level of expertise far superior to a garden variety mischief-maker.

News from ELF is often disseminated through the spokespeople for the Animal Liberation Front, a radical animal-rights group with which ELF occasionally coordinates its actions. Lacking a hierarchy or fixed membership, ELF and ALF are more akin to monikers than movements, acronyms that are retrospectively attached to the deeds performed in their names. This lack of organizational definition has led some to suggest that, inasmuch as they can be said to "exist" at all, ELF and ALF are one and the same.

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last fall, Ron Arnold, a leader of the highly conservative Wise Use movement, described the "decoupling" techniques that groups such as Earth First! and ELF use to maintain deniability for their acts of criminal monkeywrenching. But while Arnold seized on the Vail fires as evidence, predictably enough, of a growing trend in eco-terrorism, environmental journalists such as David Helvarg questioned whether the phrase "eco-terrorism" is anything more than mere packaging, an invention of anti-environmentalists that has been opportunistically picked up by fringe groups looking for serious ink. "If anything, the trend in environmentalism is more toward civil disobedience than toward outright violence or destruction," he told me. Helvarg suggests that ALF simply uses ELF to ratchet up the publicity for its actions. Indeed, on October 27, eight days after the fires, ALF issued a release announcing an attack on a mink farm in Hermansville, Michigan, which CNN and its ilk promptly ignored. The next day it issued a second release, this time attributing the attack to the now in-vogue ELF. Immediately news of the mink freedom fighters was picked up by the Associated Press and zapped around the globe.

Aside from the effectiveness of its actions (which is doubtful), ELF's enduring significance may lie in its having advanced the logic of media-savvy organizations such as Earth First!. Whereas tree-spiking and group protests involve painstaking planning and effort, ELF has shown that postmodern environmentalism requires little more than a modem, a felicitous turn of phrase, and the temerity to spin workaday acts of isolated wrenching into a sinister tale of worldwide eco-anarchy. In a PR-saturated, spin-heightened world, the cutting edge of environmental radicalism may consist of rebranding your product, from ALF to ELF or minks to lynx. And so while the charring of Vail Mountain may seem an isolated oddity — arson by little-known terrorists to save a seldom-seen animal in a town filled with absentee citizens and run by absentee owners — it may also have provided a blueprint for environmental skirmishes to come.

One afternoon, I head into the category III backcountry with Robert Alsobrook, a passionate environmentalist who has spent years hiking through the area studying its flora and fauna. After an early breakfast of strong coffee and gravy-covered biscuits at a greasy spoon in the nearby town of Minturn, we drive a few miles south on Highway 24 and park at the head of the Two Elk Creek trail beside a litter of pickup trucks and horse carriers left behind by weekend hunters. We check the sign-in book at the trailhead ("Please Stop Destroying the Ecosystem of Two Elk Creek" and "Stop Cat III!" are the last scrawled comments) and then set off alongside the creek.

The morning is quiet except for the occasional high-pitched chirping of a lone mountain chickadee hidden in the thick stands of spruce and poplars that cover the hills above us. Elk, hare, deer, and coyote tracks veer off the trail and meander down to the spots where the creek pools behind a beaver dam. We see a coal-black western cutthroat trout fighting its way upstream. The path is obviously a popular route for man and beast: Trailside aspens bear the slashes made by deer rubbing their antlers, as well as the tooth-marks of beavers whittling away.

Alsobrook lives in Boulder, where he studied biology and now owns a restaurant called Outback Pizza. Two winters ago, he and some friends spent several weeks in the backcountry tracking the elusive, nocturnal Canadian lynx, tempting it with fresh grouse wings in the hope that a hungry specimen would pounce. None did, but Alsobrook managed to find several fresh prints, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service verified as belonging to the lynx. He tells me that the charge that the Canadian lynx hasn't been seen in Category III for 30 years is being used by VA to mislead people into believing that there isn't any evidence of its existence.

Though only a week into its preliminary work, VA has already cut an access road and begun clearing Category III. Yellow slips mark prospective trails and lifts, while bright pink slips cordon off the willows growing in the protected wetland areas. If the Tenth District Court denies a final appeal this month, the project will proceed and seven million board-feet of timber will begin being cleared in Category III.

A light snow begins to fall as we reach the base of Lift 21, where I'm surprised to find the shed door unlocked and the operating keys in place and set to their "on" positions. We toy with the idea of starting up the lift but instead continue a mile up the trail and out to the clearing, where a Caterpillar tractor has been moving earth to form a makeshift bridge over the creek.

"Ten to 20 years ago, environmental activists turned to more legalistic methods rather than protest, with the result that most recent victories have been on paper," Alsobrook says, as we pick our way along the trail. "They haven't been the result of people going out and demonstrating their feelings. You just don't get the same catharsis from commenting on Forest Service plans or suing for technical violations of the law. I don't support what ELF did, but I do think that the fires were a kind of Boston Tea Party in the fight against development."

In many ways, Alsobrook embodies the subtle tension between the secularism of the environmental movement and the dogmatism of true backcountry religion. While he supports the Forest Service's plans to protect the lynx by closing certain sections of Category III and to reintroduce them in the southern part of Colorado, he is uncomfortable with the intrusive tracking and electronic tagging that this "grand experiment" will entail. Since Category III has historically been the center of lynx activity, he says, why not simply close it off to development forever?

In a twist beneficial to VA, during the course of the Category III debate a split emerged between the environmentalists and backcountry activists who are each other's natural allies. As part of their negotiations with the Forest Service, VA agreed to limit access to certain sections of the area in order to mitigate the effects on the lynx habitat. The die-hard backcountry skiers who shun Vail's well-groomed slopes in favor of the perilous East Vail Chutes were enraged by these efforts, believing they'll lose access to their favorite ski routes. Yet when backcountry skiers rail against the planned closings, VA honestly responds that the measures were taken to accommodate the environmental concerns over the lynx.

A few days after my tour of the Category III lands, I had lunch with Adam Heller, a prominent backcountry advocate whose business card identifies him as a "SKIER * ATTORNEY * ACTIVIST" — in that order. An intense, wiry man with short dark hair and bulging eyes, Heller is incensed that VA is limiting access to public land in what he believes was a quid pro quo between VA and the Forest Service. The postfire outbreak of sympathy for VA is almost more than he can bear. "It's like we're a town run by a foreign empire, and instead of rallying behind them, people should have pointed out the injustices while we had the national media's attention," he says. To protest VA's expansion, Heller formed the 11th Mountain Alliance, a backcountry group that takes its name from the famed 10th Mountain Division of ski troopers who were among Vail's original founders in 1962. The Alliance has become a loud and sometimes conspiracy-spiked voice in the Category III debate, to the point that FBI investigators went so far as to request from Heller the names of all 210 Alliance members. He refused.

Though this was surely not their hope, ELF's actions did have one immediate, significant effect: A tale of putative corporate greed suddenly became the story of environmentalism run amok. Now it was the self-proclaimed lynx-loving, anti-expansion environmentalists — albeit felonious ones — who were cast as villains. This put their law-abiding brothers and sisters in an uncomfortable position. "Is it possible to believe that these despicable acts have been carried out without local help?" asked the Denver Post's Al Knight in a column all but accusing local environmentalists of arson. More accustomed to being criticized for overly mild rather than radical tactics, mainstream environmental groups sized up the situation and decided to lie low. "This is an absolute disaster for us. VA was the pits in terms of public opinion, and now they have bona fide victim status," laments Jeff Berman, the head of Boulder's Ancient Forest Rescue. "Now suddenly we're under a cloud of suspicion because we've been so outspoken."

Rallying some 500 employees and Vail residents a few days after the fires, Vail Resorts president Andy Daly — a rugged, silver-haired man with Paul Newmanesque good looks who is the corporation's public face — shouted, "Don't let the bastards get you down!" He was referring, of course, to the arsonists, a group he also described as "outsiders, those who don't share our values, who have forced their values on us, and who know no compromise. Those outsiders have, in a way, stolen our innocence."

There are few clichés more loved than the myth of innocence lost, and despite the fact that Vail is less a small town than a wealthy international resort frequented by the kinds of inhabitants who are generally not what one would call innocents, Daly's oratory found willing ears. Even VA's rivals rallied around their competitor in its time of need, ponying up for a full-page newspaper advertisement condemning the arson and encouraging the public to ski at Vail. The stock price of Vail Resorts actually rose every day during the week following the fires. The company even located a silver lining in the destruction, mentioning repeatedly how the attack had instilled a heightened sense of community in Vail.

Of course, "community" is one of those fuzzy words that takes on a different meaning depending on who is using it. For VA, the burgeoning awareness of community presaged the town's realization of just how dependent it is on the corporation. When the people of Vail described the situation, however, they used the word "community" somewhat differently. "There certainly was a time when people used to love VA, but not now," said Kaye Ferry, president of the Vail Village Merchants Association and owner of The Daily Grind, a coffeehouse. "It's true that the community has been pulling together, but it has been pulling together around the mountain, not around VA. The mountain is the reason 99 percent of us came here. People have a very personal, even spiritual relationship with it — a favorite secret ski run, a memory about a romantic chair ride. Even VA can't get in the way of that."

I soon realized that the good citizens of Vail were a lot more interested in speculating about the culprits than they were in parsing the metaphysics of citizenship. Despite ELF's confession, Sheriff A. J. Johnson told me the ATF, the FBI, and local police were still considering other suspects. "This case promises to be a great whodunnit, in the sickly tradition of the JonBenet Ramsey murder or the JFK assassination," an overheated columnist wrote in the local paper, and indeed, the investigatory stories ran wild. One woman claimed to have seen a pickup truck with Idaho license plates — read "militia" — on the mountain only hours before the blaze. Others told me a bomb or a cache of avalanche-control explosives had been used by a group of men posing as hunters. Reports of gas-soaked sponges were met with terse "no comments" from the FBI. The unofficial list of suspects ranged from eco-terrorists to disgruntled employees and even — according to a happy conspiracy-theorist I met one evening at a local bar — to VA itself. "Between the insurance money and all the sympathy they're getting, I don't know anyone who had more to gain from that fire," he told me. Vail is such a small town that nearly everybody has at one time worked for VA, which was dubbed by the Denver media as "the most beloved and most hated ski area in North America." An acerbic Denver Post columnist offered some free advice to the ATF: "The phone book is probably a good place to start on the Vail investigation."

In Vail, the notion that mainstream environmentalism was somehow implicated in the fires was fast becoming conventional wisdom. Conservatives told me that the environmentalists' indefatigable litigiousness had encouraged the fringe to strike out; leftists assured me that it was the dismal failure of mainstream environmentalism that had inspired ELF to take matters into its own hands.

With this indictment in mind, I drove 30 miles east to the town of Frisco to see Kevin Knappmiller, the local Sierra Club representative. A bearded bear of a man, Knappmiller is a native of nearby Leadville who recently earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Colorado State University. From his house we walked a few blocks to the Moose Jaw Bar, a cheerful, smoke-filled local hangout where Bruce Springsteen ballads are punctuated by the clacking from a pool table in back.

Over beers and a burger we talked about the travails of environmentalism in the age of ELF and eco-terrorism. While most local environmentalists have become naturally defensive in the wake of the fires, Knappmiller believes someone other than a true enviro is to blame — even the dimmest eco-terrorist wouldn't be stupid enough to commit a crime whose consequences are so clearly contrary to the movement's larger interests. Confronted with the notion that organizations such as the Sierra Club haven't accomplished nearly enough, he offered his family's experience as evidence.

The Knappmillers have a long history with mining, much of it centered in the mines of Climax, Colorado, a mountain range or so away from the Vail Valley. Both of his parents worked most of their lives for the industry. "In Colorado, 96 percent of hard-rock mining on public lands is gone due to the efforts of the environmental community," he claimed. "So you can believe me when I tell you that environmental groups have had an impact." For Knappmiller, the circle connecting mining and environmentalism will soon be completed with a startling poignancy. On December 31, his mother will be laid off from her position with a California mine because the local chapter of the Sierra Club forced it closed; his father lost his job for similar reasons. They are both in their late fifties and have no illusions about their job prospects.

Of all the people I talked to concerning the new trends in both the ski industry and the environmental movement, Knappmiller was one of the few who appreciated that, no matter what your sympathies, it is not always so easy to tabulate the complex costs and benefits of either environmentalism or development. After all, given a choice between mining, with its Climax-style gouging of the tender earth, and Vail's Category III-style development, it's pretty obvious that Vail comes out the winner. Of course, the best scenario would be to simply leave the mountain alone, but few suggest that this is a real possibility any longer. The conglomeration of the ski industry and the advent of what Edward Abbey once called "industrial tourism" has sorely tested the concept of managed growth — a failure that many believe has diminished the reputations of mainstream environmental organizations and unleashed the ELFs of the world.

I asked Knappmiller whether he agreed with radical groups like ELF that VA's expansion into Category III is proof that the system has failed. "I guess I am a fundamentally legalistic kind of person who believes in the country and the laws it is based on," he said. "For whatever reason, Vail won this one. They went through the process, jumped the hurdles, and won. That's that. You play the game, and if you lose, you have to accept it. I guess all we can do is hope that the skiing will be good."

Robert S. Boynton is a Brooklyn-based writer.

Photographs by Stephen Collector






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