Arson sparked local support for expansion
VAIL ” Ski industry officials say the 1998 Two Elk fires have little lasting effect seven years after flames engulfed five buildings and three lifts on top of Vail Mountain.
“I don’t think we can be intimidated,” said Vail resident Andy Daly, who was president of Vail Resorts at the time of the fires. “Skiers have rights to the public land and to use it in a very environmentally sensitive way.”
Two people, Chelsea D. Gerlach of Portland, Ore., and William C. Rodgers of Prescott, Ariz., have been named in the last week as suspects in the 1998 Vail arson, though neither has been charged.
The Earth Liberation Front, an underground environmental group, took credit for the Vail Mountain fires in 1998, “on behalf of the lynx.” Opponents of the Blue Sky Basin expansion said the project was harmful to Canada lynx habitat.
Three days before the Oct. 19, 1998, fire, a federal court turned down an emergency injunction against construction for the Blue Sky Basin expansion, giving the green light to Vail Resorts to proceed with the project.
Daly, who left Vail Resorts in 2002, said he doesn’t think the fires had an effect on the way the company, or the ski industry, thinks about ski area expansion or environmental issues.
There’s a good democratic process in place to consider ski area expansions, Daly said, and the arsonists were extremists who went outside that process by destroying property. The major change that did result was an increase in security, he said.
“It resulted in an intensification of security on the mountain, using, principally, technology,” he said.
Kelly Ladyga, spokeswoman for Vail Resorts, also said the effect of the fires is increases in security. There was probably no effect on expansion or environmental issues, she said.
“We will continue to make pragmatic decisions that balance the needs of our guests in terms of what they want in an on-mountain experience with being long-standing stewards of the environment,” she said
Vail Resorts did not change the way it proceeded with Blue Sky Basin, which opened in January 2000, Ladyga said.
The 1998 fires destroyed the Two Elk Restaurant, Ski Patrol headquarters and most of the terminal area of Chair 5. Five other structures were damaged. Two Elk Restaurant was rebuilt and reopened in December 1999.
Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, said the fires didn’t change the way ski resorts approach expansion.
“I don’t think it’s had any impact on the broader dialogue of what a resort plans and whether they expand or not,” he said.
The fires may have help bolster the idea that expansion of ski areas is more cost-effective and environmentally sensitive than building new areas that requie new infrastructure.
“In terms of helping people understand why we need to expand rather than build new ones, that got some additional discussion,” he said.
Berry cited numbers that show total ski days increasing over the last decade, making expansion an important issue for the ski industry, he said. Vail Resorts-owned Breckenridge and Keystone have recently opened or proposed expanded terrain.
Breckenridge opened the Imperial Express lift, creating more lift-served terrain on Peak 8, earlier this season. Keystone is proposing an expansion of cat-served and hike-to terrain for an additional 278 acres on Independence and Bear mountains.
Resorts were already moving toward environmental solutions at the time of the fires, he said.
“This was a footnote, albeit a sad footnote, of what we consider to be a few angry disgruntled folks,” he said.
Scott Pittman, a Vail resident since 1983, remembers watching the smoke from the Two Elk fires from a house in the Pilgrim Downs area of Edwards.
Pittman said there were mixed feelings in the skiing community about Blue Sky Basin ” or the Category III expansion, as it was then known ” before the Two Elk fires. But after the fires, the skiing community got behind the expansion, Pittman said.
“I took it as an affront to my skiing,” he said. “It was anti-skiing. It was the radical left trying to take control of what we do here. … The skiing community thought it was a threat.”
He said the fires brought sympathy to Vail Resorts, and allowed it to rebuild “bigger and better.”
The Blue Sky expansion was good for Vail Mountain because it spread out skiers, easing crowds in his favorite place ” the Back Bowls ” Pittman said.
“Blue Sky is great,” he said. “Lover’s Leap is killer. I absolutely love it there. Moreover, it gives us the opportunity for Vail Resorts to expand the quality for everyone, including the locals.”
Troy Goldberg, owner of Troy’s Ski Shop in Vail Village and a Vail skier since 1994, said the local buzz before Blue Sky opened was about Chair 5 in Sun Down Bowl being less crowded.
“There was a little bit of opposition before the fires,” he said. “That opposition went away after the fire. The locals were totally on the side of Vail Resorts after the fire.”
Contact Edward Stoner:
(970) 949-0555, ext. 14623
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Independence Pass opened just before 2 p.m. Friday after closing earlier this week because of a series of snowstorms, a Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman said Friday.