Vail, CO, Oct. 18–It’s been one year since the worst act of eco-terrorism in the United States rocked the Vail Valley when arsonists set three fires on top of Vail Mountain.
The fires caused $12 million in damage by destroying three buildings and damaging four chairlifts. Authorities quickly cried arson, after examining physical evidence and after a radical environmental group, Earth Liberation Front (ELF), claimed responsibility. The fires were set to coincide with the start of construction on Category III, an 885-acre two-bowl expansion across Two Elk Creek from Vail’s existing Back Bowls.
The ELF and other environmental groups opposed the expansion on the grounds that it would destroy prime lynx habitat and one of the few remaining roadless areas in the upper Vail Valley region.
Today, most of the physical scars from the October 19, 1998 attack have healed as Vail Resorts has almost completely rebuilt the damaged and destroyed buildings. The opening of Category III, now called Blue Sky Basin, has been pushed up almost a year to January 6, 2000.
“A rebuilt Two Elk is almost done, and Patrol Headquarters is well on it’s way,” said Paul Witt, Director of Communications for Vail Resorts. “It’s taken us about a year to rebuild the structures, but it only took us about a day to recover from the fires. The day after the fires, we had plans to put up One Elk (a temporary structure to replace Two Elk for the 1998-99 season), and get the lifts up and running on time,” Witt said. “(The fires) really did not affect our operations at all last year.”
Ironically, several environmental groups look at the incident as a major setback for their cause. Not only has the expansion progressed ahead of schedule, but also the groups have lost some local support. Their efforts at continued peaceful protests of the expansion have been stalled.
“I had put a lot of work into opposing Category III by planning peaceful protests and it was time to show what our group could do,” said Ben Doon, a member of Ancient Forest Rescue (AFR). “Because of the fires, we all left and never got to do anything at all.”
Doon is one of six peaceful protesters subpoenaed and scheduled to testify before a grand jury this week. Several members of AFR were camping near Vail Mountain in preparation for a peaceful protest the same night the fires broke out. The group’s stand against Category III and the fact that they were in the area at the time has landed them on the suspect list even though ELF has taken credit for the fires.
“If you look at the entire history of our group, there have never been any acts of arson or property damage,” Doon said. “There are many out there who disagree with our methods, such as chaining ourselves to equipment and blocking roads, but we don’t condone violence in any way.”
No arrests have been made in the attack, and investigators won’t discuss details of the case or potential suspects. The ATF and other agencies put up a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction, but so far no one has come forth.
“It’s not unusual with arson fires to take a year or more to make an arrest,” said Larry Bettendorf spokesman for ATF. “There is a lot of evidence to go through. When we started this case there were hundreds of leads and pieces of evidence, and we’re still moving on with that work.”
Meanwhile, Vail Resorts continues with increased security as another ski season approaches and construction continues on Category III and Two Elk Lodge.
“Security was increased a year ago because of the fires, and it’s been at the level since then and will remain at that level,” Witt said.