The Battle Lines are Drawn: Background on Vail's Category III Expansion


Confrontation had been brewing at Vail for months, perhaps even years. The Category III expansion, which involves four chairlifts, 12 miles of new runs and roads, and a 20,000-square-foot restaurant, has been under fire-at least figuratively-since federal biologists issued reports that the area contains important habitat for the lynx. (Vail officials did not know at presstime whether Cat III would be open for the 1999-00 season.)This is a rare wild feline that is a native of western Canada but had migrated southward through the Rocky Mountains of the United States. No wild lynx has been seen in the Vail area for more than 25 years, though biologists have gathered evidence of its existence there. As a precaution, the White River National Forest prescribed numerous measures to accommodate wildlife in Vail’s proposed new terrain.

Colorado Wild and other groups, including Ancient Forest Rescue and Earth First!, had been fighting a protracted battle through appeals within the Forest Service and, ultimately, through legal action in federal court, to halt the expansion. They contend that Vail won’t stop at Category III, that the resort has designs on a much larger chunk of private land, known as the Gilman Tract, that consists of 4,000 acres near Minturn. Here, they claim, Vail will create ski runs just to position itself for a massive development of pricey homes and condos. In short, the main reason Vail wants to expand, they say, is to sweeten the kitty for a huge real estate bonanza.

After running the gauntlet of scrutiny and public hearings from several federal and state agencies, Vail received approval for the Cat III project, even though it seems likely that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will soon declare the lynx “in jeopardy,” a classification that could stop any projects being considered in a potential lynx migration corridor. Still, federal courts refused to side with the environmental groups, citing the plethora of studies that had been done on this reclusive species that concluded Cat III would not have a significant negative impact on potential lynx habitat.

Among the odd twists and turns of the July events at Vail was a bizarre finding-a dead lynx that mysteriously turned up on the roadside of I-70 near Vail. The animal, one of several released into the wild in southern Colorado, was wearing a radio-tracking collar. Coincidentally, the creature was found one day before the protesters who had been arrested on July 6 were scheduled to appear in court, raising eyebrows among investigating officers.

In the months following the Two Elk fire, local environmental activists had been working up another grudge against Vail. Several members of Ancient Forest Rescue were questioned by the FBI in connection with the arson, and others were summoned before a local grand jury. Just after the blaze, a shadowy organization calling itself the Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility through an anonymous e-mail message sent to a Boulder newspaper. But the groups that have been publicly fighting Vail profess non-violence and, in fact, condemned the vandalism because it generated public sympathy for the resort. Comments posted on an Earth First! website denied any connection with ELF and called the FBI investigation “harassment.”