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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Powder Burn

Air Date: Week of January 19, 2001

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Transcript

TOOMEY: The Earth Liberation Front has claimed responsibility for a number of acts of vandalism and arson, including the recent fire set in Long Island to protest sprawl. But the scene of the clandestine group's most notorious claim lies in the small mountain community of Vail, Colorado. In the early morning hours of October 19, 1998, seven separate fires swept through the central headquarters of the Vail Ski Resort. The result was $12 million in damage. ELF said it set the fires to protest expansion of the resort and to protect the habitat of the lynx. But as journalist Daniel Glick found, solving this crime was not as simple as it seemed. The community of Vail had built up enough animosity against the ski resort to assemble an impressive list of suspects beyond the Earth Liberation Front. As he writes in a new book "Powderburn," the little town on the mountain came to represent a number of problems now facing the "New West."

GLICK: In Vail's tale lies a parable for our times: how global dot com capitalism stretches its tendrils into the most unlikely places. Like this bucolic Alpine valley in the Rocky Mountains. How the post Drexel-Burnham-Lambert junk bond mentality has shifted insidiously toward vulture investors, even in the unlikely environs of the ski and recreation industry. How environmental conflicts over recreation have shifted the western debate from cowboys, miners, and loggers to the impacts of mountain bikers wearing lycra and skiers wearing Gore-Tex. And how, after 40 years, the unintended consequences of creating a full Austrian ski resort, then building a community as an afterthought, have come to haunt Vail, ultimately making it the target of an arson that was dubbed the costliest eco-terrorism act in history.

TOOMEY: That's Daniel Glick reading from his book "Powderburn." Why isn't this a simple story of a simple whodunit?

GLICK: One of the things that struck me and struck law enforcement at the very beginning is that there were so many different factions of people in the area around Vail that plausibly had motive and opportunity to commit the crime. The company that owns Vail, the ski aea, also owns three other resorts in Colorado, and had really become a big force in this mountain valley. And the new company had alienated so many different groups of people, whether they were the old school ski bums who thought the whole place was going corporate, or small merchants who felt that the new company was buying retail outlets and hotels and really trying to take over the whole town. Ultimately, this was a perfect kind of whodunit, because so many people had motive and opportunity.

TOOMEY: Talk to me about the underbelly, what I wouldn't see. Tell me what's not apparent in Vail.

GLICK: I think that 72 percent of the homes are owned by people who don't even live there. In some ways, it's a facade of a town. It's a ghost town where the owners are there only a couple weeks out of the year. But basically, it's a cauldron of a lot of people who have seen the valley change over the 40 years since Vail was built, and it just keeps getting built up and built up and built up. And I think the tensions of the social and the cultural dislocation that follows is really intense.

TOOMEY: You write at a certain point in your book, "In many ways Vail was almost ready to combust spontaneously before somebody literally poured gasoline on the place and lit a match." So, you had some employees that weren't happy, small business owners that weren't happy, an immigrant labor force who wasn't happy. And then in the early morning hours of October 19, 1998, comes the fire. Twelve million dollars worth of damage. What were people's knee-jerk reactions about whodunit?

GLICK: There was an enormously volatile conflict going on at the time. Vail had plans to expand their ski area, and they had -- the local environmental groups had ginned up a fair amount of opposition in the town of Vail and in the Eagle Valley. But Vail Resorts had won every administrative challenge and every legal avenue that the environmentalists could pose to try to stop it.

TOOMEY: And those environmental challenges had to do with this being possible lynx habitat.

GLICK: Exactly. That was one of several ways that the environmental groups had sought to stop this. So here we are, poised on the day, literally, Monday morning, that the bulldozers were supposed to come to start the construction. And lo and behold, the fire starts that day.

TOOMEY: So, was everybody thinking eco-terrorism from the get-go?

GLICK: A lot of the people who worked for Vail Resorts immediately thought it had to be these environmentalists. But one of the things that I found fascinating when I started researching the book is that I sat down with one of the Eagle County Sheriffs Department investigators, and he told me a story that when he sat down two days later with the FBI, and they said "Okay, you're the local guy, who could have done this?" And the sheriff's deputy said, "Who couldn't have done this?" The list of people pissed off at the owners is pretty long.

TOOMEY: Shortly after the fires there was an e-mail claim of responsibility for the Earth Liberation Front. But you came across some evidence that it was not this group who lit that match.

GLICK: To say that this is a group or an organization is overstating it a little bit. This is not a group that has a board of directors. It doesn't have a glossy magazine it puts out. I would call it a loose-knit accumulation of like-minded people who probably only know each other in cyberspace. So, what you see is some dissimilarities between this arson and some of the other arsons that the ELF has claimed. It was of orders of magnitude more damage than anything else they had done. The note itself was quite a bit different than some of the other notes that had been left. It contained no information in it that wasn't in the public domain already. Now, normally, in some of the previous e-mails that had been sent in the name of the ELF, there had been that kind of information. In this case there was none.

TOOMEY: There was also speculation that if the Earth Liberation front was responsible, they must have had inside help. Why would that have been necessary?

GLICK: It was a pretty strategic strike. They hit a clump of buildings, the old patrol headquarters, the heart of the communications system for the mountain were in the basement of that building. Nobody really knew that. And they hit some chair lifts that were really vital to the way that the mountain works. And then they hit this signature lodge that was 33,000 square feet, called Two Elk. So people thought, how could anybody just sort of come up here from sea level, climb up to 11,000 feet, torch all these buildings, and then get off the mountain unnoticed, unless they had had at least some sense from one local?

TOOMEY: It's my understanding, and you write this in the book, that Vail Resorts headquarters was known as the evil empire. But after the fires, it seemed that overnight Vail Resorts went from evil empire to victim.

GLICK: It was abrupt and I think very, very heartfelt. People felt personally violated by this affront. The mountain was a very special place, is a very special place, to people who live there. And, you know, the boss is always the person you love to hate. And so, there's a curious relationship between the company and a company town. And I think that when the company was being threatened, many people rallied around. They offered to help rebuild. There was a great feeling of coming together.

TOOMEY: Does it matter in the end who set the fires, in the larger scheme of things?

GLICK: I don't think it does. I think the fires really did raise a lot of issues that needed to be raised. And in the recreation industry in general, people are waking up to the fact that mass recreation has environmental impacts. And the money that's being made in skiing these days is not selling lift tickets, it's selling real estate and golf courses and condos. And that is where I think the sprawl that comes along with the development of ski areas and recreation areas for the masses is where the next focus of some of our attention should be. We can't keep growing and developing and still have a relationship to this natural world that we seem to cherish so much that we want to flock there.

TOOMEY: Daniel Glick is a special correspondent for Newsweek. His new book is called "Powderburn: Arson, Money, and Mystery on Vail Mountain." Dan, thanks for joining us.

GLICK: It's been my great pleasure.

(Music up and under)

TOOMEY: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Next week: When Larry can't go to the lake, the lake goes to Larry. How to make a backyard skating rink that will be the envy of the neighborhood.

LARRY: Why do I sweep? What you're trying to do is, you have as flat a surface as possible when you put the flood down. And any little bit of snow, any little chip of ice or something like that, it's going to spoil that. I know it's sad. (Laughs) It's a pretty sad statement. But it's about perfection.

 

 

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