The Battle Lines are Drawn: Eco-activists Target Vail Resort

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Dark clouds gathered over Vail last summer, and not just from La Niña's relentless mountain thunderstorms, which sent rivers of mud and boulders spewing across busy Interstate 70. Barely nine months after eco-terrorists had torched Two Elk day lodge to protest Vail's pending Category III expansion, a band of eco-activists launched an open offensive against the same, now fully approved, project. Using defiant tactics of civil disobedience, they turned up the wattage in what is now a high-powered, well-orchestrated campaign to portray ski resorts as environmental heavies. And, by association, to tarnish skiers as politically incorrect.

Vowing to prevent the nation's largest ski resort from building its long-planned Cat III project on 885 acres of national forest land, The Coalition to Stop Vail Expansion used the Fourth of July weekend to stage its own brand of fireworks. After years of administrative and legal challenges, the groups that belong to the Coalition had been unable to halt the project, and now they turned to more extreme measures-ones that involved confrontation and arrests.First they enlisted out-of-state protesters from an activist "training camp" run by the radical Earth First! movement in southern Colorado. Then they issued a call to action on their Internet site, exhorting sympathizers to "...punish Vail Resorts for this project" and urging them to "expose the deceit, spread the truth and give Vail Resorts a bad name in the skiing industry." One directive read: "Show up on July 1st, and let's run this destructive corporation out of town!"

That day, the first day that work crews could get access after a mandated closure for elk migrations, Vail began moving heavy machinery up Mill Creek Road, an unpaved trail rising from the lower terminal of the Vista Bahn chairlift. Partway up to the construction site, they were met by something that is familiar to every timber industry truck driver in the Pacific Northwest-a 30-foot-high log contraption known as a tripod. It was occupied by a single protester, Michael Wold, 26, of Nederland, Colo., who goes by the nickname "Bobcat," and who dangled in a trapeze that hung precariously below the apex. Any attempt to dismantle the apparatus would endanger him, and that was the idea. "It was the biggest tripod I'd ever seen, but also the most unsafe," said Ken Rice, an enforcement officer with the U.S. Forest Service. Rice should know, having spent nearly 10 years in Oregon during the height of anti-logging demonstrations there.

Accompanied by a posse of other Forest Service officers and local sheriff's deputies, Rice summoned a cherry-picker (a truck-and-crane device used for tending utility lines) to snatch Bobcat from his lofty lair. That was precisely what the protesters expected. As the cherry-picker began lumbering uphill, several of them formed a human roadblock to stop it. Then a young man crawled under the vehicle, wrapped his arms around the driveshaft and chained his hands together inside a PVC plastic sleeve. It took a while for authorities to cut him loose, but as soon as they did a woman dashed through a cordon of guards and quickly locked herself to another side of the vehicle.

With the situation rapidly escalating, the officers decided to pull back and re-evaluate their strategies. They abandoned the cherry-picker, the tripod and the protesters, who, for the time being, were allowed to occupy the road. Authorities had hoped the group would tire and leave the mountain. They were wrong. For the next four days, the eco-activists dug in even harder, alternating watches in the tripod and under the cherry-picker. On the evening of the Fourth, they had a commanding view of the annual fireworks display above the town of Vail. And during daylight hours, they regaled passersby, mostly hikers and mountain bikers, with anti-Vail placards and speeches. At the same time, a pack of news reporters, photographers and TV crews recorded the show.

By the morning of Jy 6, the cops had had enough. Wearing night-vision goggles and camouflage garb, a squad of 38 officers staged a predawn ambush. But when they swooped down on the encampment, the protesters were awake and ready for them. So much for the element of surprise. Most of the activists and their leaders had moved out of the small closure zone declared by the Forest Service, leaving five of their number to be arrested.Included in the roundup was Jeffrey Berman, president of Colorado Wild, an organization based in Boulder, Colo., that has been one of Vail's most persistent critics. Berman's group had tried, and failed, to stymie the Category III expansion through lawsuits in federal court. Sometime before the 5 am sweep, Berman crawled into the tripod sling, replacing Bobcat, and offered himself as a sacrificial lamb when officers arrived. "I did it because the government failed the will of the people," Berman later told SKI. He accused the Forest Service of conspiring with Vail to ramrod approvals for the expansion, and of suppressing reports from government biologists suggesting that the project could damage habitat used by the reclusive Canadian lynx.

Rice said it was clear that the protesters had advance knowledge of the raid. "They were kind of waiting for us," he said. "We think they got wind of us by listening to police radio scanners." In the camp, officers found an infra-red detection device, as well as a slew of cellular phones and portable two-way radios. They could have been notified by anybody, maybe even by a tipster in one of the government agencies. Berman himself later boasted that his group had "friends" in the local sheriff's and fire departments.

The posse of law enforcement officers had barely cleared this blockade when they were called to another one. The activists had opened a second front on the backside of the mountain on Lime Creek Road, which crews also use to reach the construction area. And this time The Coalition had designed a more creative set of obstacles. They had dug a hole in the road, laid a piece of metal rebar in the bottom, erected a PVC pipe vertical to the rebar, then surrounded the whole works with quick-setting concrete. On top of this they had positioned an overturned Audi sedan with a hole cut through its roof. They assigned one volunteer to lay inside, stick his hand through the opening, and lash it to the buried rebar/pipe apparatus with a carabiner. This little bit of civil disobedience is called a "Batmobile," although it is also known (without the wreck) as a "sleeping dragon." While the protester can easily release himself from the rebar, it takes hours for authorities to remove him, usually by jackhammering carefully through the concrete.

In this case, firefighters first had to cut through the car, an operation made more difficult-and hazardous-by the presence of gasoline that had spilled or been dumped on the ground. Hours later, with rain creating a messy, muddy situation, they extracted and arrested a man named "Opie." After issuing statements to accompanying news media, the protesters retreated to a Forest Service campground on nearby Shrine Mountain.But they signaled their intentions to keep up the hit-and-run strategy throughout the summer. A couple of weeks after the roadblock incidents, a woman climbed 60 feet up a lodgepole pine in Pete's Bowl, where some trees had been marked for removal. The activist, Jennifer Huehnle, 25, of Golden, Colo., who goes by the nickname "Moonshadow," had three backpacks full of food and water, and was prepared to hunker down in her perch for days. When Vail security staff discovered her, they summoned the officers, who once again called for a cherry-picker. Moonshadow had chosen her protest stand well; the crews had to remove surrounding trees before the crane could be positioned for a grab. During the 12-plus hours that it took to accomplish this, Moonshadow gave live reports to the media on her cellular phone, borrowing from a stockpile of extra batteries.pile of extra batteries.