Arson and Lynx; A catalyst for change in dealing with conflicting values encompassing Colorado’s Ski Industry

 By Kent Abernathy

              Conflicting beliefs on the appropriate use of natural resources can result in a working model of collaboration leading to successful outcomes that work toward economic sustainability and biological diversity. Arson attacks; ski area operations, and lynx are all interconnected (or ‘lynked’) to each other as well as to the global ecosystem.


A classic western showdown built up for five years over the proposed ski area expansion in Vail Colorado. On October 19th 1998, one day before the road building and old growth forest clear cutting was to begin, the project and process reached an apex. The struggle between ski area expansion and lynx habitat brought the conflicting interests and values regarding the public domain into the national spotlight.   Arson reduced a restaurant and three ski lifts to ashes; the Vail fires are the costliest eco-crime to date in U.S. history.  Seven years later, the attack remains unsurpassed in terms of monetary damage inflicted on the ski industry.  The crime remains unsolved, with no single individual ever being charged. 

After the smoke cleared, what changed and what lessons remained?


Canadian Lynx

            In addition to the Vail fires, the Canadian Lynx seems inextricably linked to Vail in other aspects.  By the mid-1970s the lynx population in Colorado was extirpated. The last lynx was illegally trapped near Vail in 1972. In 1998, Lynx tracks were spotted in the Vail area. Finally, in 2000, during the first round of lynx released into the San Juan Mountain Range in South-Western Colorado, a lynx made his way northward to the Vail area and was killed by a car while attempting to cross Interstate – 70 adjacent to Vail.

            The lynx would be reintroduced to Colorado but hundreds of miles from Vail.  The courts declined to delay Vail’s ski area expansion pending a final decision on the species status.  “As a result, the lynx and

Vail Resorts didn’t heed ELF’s warning and didn’t stop with expanding North America’s largest ski area; they took on the Department of Justice in a lawsuit to allow them acquisition of the Breckenridge and Keystone ski areas – and won.  Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, and Keystone together compromise 40% of the total land area allocated to ski areas in Colorado.  Like any corporation, Vail Resorts understands the importance of market share. 

National Ski Area Association (NSAA)-Toward Sustainable Slopes

            The lynx and the fires connected Vail and consequently the ski industry to the environment - differently.  Skiing now joined the traditional extractive industries operating on public lands – mining, timber, and grazing – as also extractive.  Recreation and tourism are no longer perceived as benign; they too have a powerful affect on the environment including tradeoffs that impact wildlife habitat.

            The public now viewed the ski industry as being associated with environmental costs and trade-offs.  Unlike typical extractive industries the ski industry has a direct connection between end users (skiers) and the resource.  Conversely, the connection between the consumer of electricity, timber products, and beef is typically far removed from the resource base.  This presented the ski industry an opportunity to demonstrate sound environmental practices that work to mitigate or offset the negative impacts ski operations have on the resource.  Equally, inaction by ski areas could reinforce the negative perceptions by the public toward the ski industry            National Ski Areas Association is the trade association for ski area owners and operators.  NSAA’s primary objective is to meet the needs of ski area owners and operators nationwide and to foster, stimulate and promote growth in the industry. The Natural Resources Defense Council and NSAA state that global warming is a bottom line issues for the 3 billion-ski industry and its employees, as well as a key environmental concern.  “Global warming could affect our quality of life where we’re lucky enough to live and play,” states Geraldine Link Public Policy Director of NSAA.  Climate change, as stated in the charter, is identified as a potential threat to the environment and our business.

Scrutiny of the lynx’s prospect for sustainability coincided with the ski industries reflection of their own sustainability.  Increasing pressure by environmentalists has been critical to pushing the NSAA to create the Sustainable Slopes Program. In recent years, environmental organizations have strongly criticized western ski areas’ expansion plans and operation practices highlighting landscape destruction, deforestation, water and air pollution, and damage to wildlife habitats as the most detrimental effects. (Rivera, Jorge and Peter de Leon, 2002). 

Notably, however, none of the major environmental conservation organizations, such as the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, and the Natural Resources Defense Council that were initially involved in the design of Sustainable Slopes decided not to officially endorse the program (NSAA, 2000, 2001, 2003a).   A primary point of disagreement is the impact ski resorts are having on road-less areas and how this contributes to wildlife habitat fragmentation (Sustainable Slopes Rpt., 2003).

The WRNF Land and Resources Management Plan for 2002 states: Lynx analysis unit boundaries will not be adjusted for individual projects.  Changes will only be completed in coordination and concurrence with the USFWS that listed the lynx as a Threatened Species.  The USFWS and CDOW consider the disputed area to be a critical wildlife movement corridor for not only the lynx but for other far-ranging forest animals.

Forested Landscape Linkages provide for wildlife movement, migration, and dispersal for forest carnivores and other wide-ranging wildlife species.  These areas provide safe travel connections between large blocks of forested landscapes across the forest.  They provide security from intensive recreational and other human disturbances.  

Summary and Conclusions

            Environmental causes have galvanized citizen participation as well as outlaw tactics over our public lands on both the right and the left of the political spectrum.    Unless the culprits of the arson are caught, we may never know if the lynx was the primary motivation for the fires.  Nevertheless, the interest revolving around the successful reintroduction of the lynx, may have acted to reduce that apathy.

Colorado has two models of successful public and private sector collaborative efforts: The ski industries green programs and the successful reintroduction of the lynx.

Few examples exist in Colorado, which better illustrate multiple factions participating in a successful endeavor than the Colorado Lynx Reintroduction program.  In June of 2003, pictures of the first lynx cubs born in the wild of Colorado hit the press.  The ramifications from the picture of the cubs are many.  One thing is clear, that the pictures of the cubs are a metaphor for a pivotal point in which the forces of nature intersect with the paths of preservation, politics, economics, and law. 

            There are no straight lines in nature, and the lines leading to collaborative efforts between opposing values regarding natural resources, is a crooked line indeed. The lynx certainly seemed to galvanize opponents and raise the emotional bar regarding Vail’s expansion.  In as much as the arson attack served as a warning about the breakdown in our legal systems and processes regarding public land use; the successful reintroduction of the lynx, serves as a mascot of sorts for converging values of preservation with development.  While Vail’s initial proposed expansion was approved, additional proposals that three back bowls be added to their ski terrain in 2002 were removed from possible expansion to protect critical lynx habitat. With a model for understanding the intricate relationship between economics and the environment, our land management decisions can benefit from new insight toward a holistic view.  The model will be needed, in that an area adjacent to the Wolf Creek Ski area has a real estate proposal requiring a new road through USFS land. Wolf Creek Ski area is in the San Juan Mountain Range, where the CDOW relocated the lynx, which are now reproducing.  Lynx habitat will, again, be a factor weighed against new real estate and road construction proposals. 

Colorado’s ski areas are all connected to the global ecosystem. 

While the arson in Vail was a factor in contributing to the ‘greening’ of the ski industry – the industry was and is reacting to their customer base as well as the threat of global climatic change. The ski industry, too, has achieved success, in modeling green practices, with future challenges ahead.   One relatively new one: Radio –collared lynx have verified that in March 2005 that the lynx has made there way back to there old hunting grounds – Vail and the surrounding area.

“The effects of global warming are most pronounced at northern latitudes during wintertime.  Snow pack also provides clean water for drinking, agriculture and wildlife.  And alpine drought can leave mountains more susceptible to fire”(NSAA).  Presumably, so can a lynx.