AN ENVIRONMENTAL group calling itself the Earth Liberation Front has said that it was responsible for a series of arson attacks in the fashionable Rocky Mountain ski resort of Vailearlier this week. The fires, which destroyed three buildings and damaged four chairlifts, lighting up the mountainside above Vail for hours, were described yesterday as the most expensive act of "eco-terrorism" ever in the United States.
The cost of the damage was put at $12m.
The Earth Liberation Front, thought to have links with the Animal Liberation Front, has admitted to several arson attacks in the north west of the United States over the past two years, but this was its most ambitious and costly action to date. In an e-mail message to a number of media outlets it said that it had acted "on behalf of the lynx", which it believes is endangered by a new development plan for Vail.
Vail, in Colorado, has been a more anonymous haunt for lesser stars than nearby Aspen. Dodi Fayed, ill-fated beau of Princess Di, celebrated his first marriage at the top of Vail Mountain; Sigourney Weaver is an habituee, and the millionaire politician, Ross Perot, has a house there. Already the biggest skiing area in the United States, it is on the verge of a major expansion, into more than 800 acres of forested land.
A lawsuit brought by local environmentalists to prevent the expansion was dismissed last week and the first trees were felled within days to start clearing the land. The environmental groups had brought the suit, arguing that the planned development would threaten a project to reintroduce the lynx in the region. The local environmentalists immediately dissociated themselves from the arson attacks.
In its message, the Earth Liberation Front singled out Vail Resorts Inc, the power behind the expansion and one of the biggest US ski developers, as its chief target. "On behalf of the lynx," it said, "five buildings and four ski lifts at Vail were reduced to ashes on the night of Sunday, October 18. Vail Inc is already the largest ski operation in North America and now wants to expand even further."
The message said that the latest expansion in Vail would "ruin the last, best lynx habitat in the state. Putting profits ahead of Colorado's wildlife will not be tolerated... We will be back if this greedy corporation continues to trespass into wild and unroaded areas."
Vail Resorts Inc, which became a public company two years ago, has spread into almost every aspect of winter sports. It has bought up two of the premier skiing areas, Keystone and Breckenridge and five hotels, and it has a joint venture with the largest sportswear company in Colorado.
The town manager of Vail, Robert McLaurin, was quoted as saying: "Vail Resorts used to be the 800 pound gorilla, they are now the 4,000 pound gorilla." He said that in terms of conforming to regulations and community involvement, Vail Resorts was "a pretty good corporate citizen". But he conceded that there was mounting resentment about its power among the resort's smaller businesses and residents.
The company president, Andy Daly, said that most of the damage would be repaired within the week and that the skiing season would open, as scheduled, on 6 November.
Even if there is no trace of the damage by the time the first skiers of the winter arrive the sabotage at Vail is without precedent and unlikely to be forgotten soon.
Indeed, it is being seen as a symptom of problems that go far beyond the fashionable ski resorts of the Rocky Mountains.
Vail resembles many winter sports areas of the United States, not just in the Rockies, but also in the Appalachians, which have experienced rapid development and an influx of newcomers over the last 25 years, but now find the interests of the residents and commerce diverging. Small settlements have grown into small towns, and then bigger towns. From low-key beginnings they have grown into chic, refined and increasingly expensive resorts.
But as the price of property and services has risen, so have taxes - based on the value of the property - squeezing out poorer (and often long- time) residents. Not that local residents are entirely without blame for what has happened. Small operators made good profits from selling out to bigger operators.
In the past five years, as the number of skiers has tended to stagnate, the bigger operators have extended into the hotel and retail business to the point where one big company can wield vast local control. "Vail Resorts", a local caretaker told New York Times reporters, "is a little like Microsoft... They seem to be buying up everything, hotels, real estate..."
One independent ski-shop owner told of expansion plans thwarted by big corporate interests who had a monopoly on sales and rentals of ski equipment and clothing because they owned the skiing area and ruled that no one else could set up there to sell goods they already sold.
Small, independent hotels, have banded together to advertise for custom against the big resort complexes.
It was precisely the attraction of places such as Vail as just-civilised wilderness that drew many of the newcomers in the late Sixties and Seventies.
Now in positions of local influence - more than half the Vail town council members moved to the area in the Seventies - they are fighting to preserve the nature they thought they had bought into.
But they are divided about how best to do it: does big commercial development spell survival or decline? A Vail Resorts representative says that the company met all the environmental and planning requirements for its latest venture, and the court agreed.
The ELF's attacks may be futile in Vail, but they are unlikely to be the last such protest against the combined might of a social elite and big business.
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