The torching of a Vail, Colorado, ski area by radical environmentalists opposed to expansion of the facility may have produced a political backdraft that could damage existing support for the group’s position. Prior to the arson, about 90 percent of public comment ran against the expansion, which had been contested in the courts for nearly a year.
“This senseless destruction of property will likely backfire, threatening popular support for the very causes the perpetrators claim to be crusading for,” said H. Sterling Burnett, environmental policy analyst for the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas. “Many people and organizations that had fought in city planning meetings and in court against the expansion of the ski operations in Vail are now proposing a ‘barn building’ event to help the resort rebuild.”
At press time, no date had been set to begin rebuilding the Two Elk Restaurant, which was set ablaze on October 18 by a group calling itself the Earth Liberation Front (ELF). Also damaged in the $12 million fire was a picnic building, four ski lifts, and ski patrol headquarters.
ELF, said to be allied with the Animal Liberation Front and Earth First! said it set the fire to protest the proposed expansion of the 885-acre site that includes prime lynx habitat. The Vail attack is the latest in a campaign of escalating eco-terrorism across the country.
In an e-mail message, ELF said its actions were done “on behalf of the lynx” and vowed to “be back if this greedy corporation continues to trespass into wild and unroaded areas.”
Only days before the fires were set, the resort’s owners, Vail Associates, won a court battle with environmentalists who argued that the expansion would threaten the planned reintroduction of lynx into the area. Three weeks later, the Colorado Wildlife Commission approved a plan to reintroduce the first of 80 lynx into the Weminuch Wilderness about 150 miles south of Vail.
Forty of the wild cats were expected to be released there in December; if the project is a success, the remaining lynx will arrive in 1999. Biologists say there is no guarantee that the animal, rarely seen south of the Canadian border, can survive in its new habitat.
Although Vail residents were reported to be horrified by the fires, a Denver Post columnist has raised the possibility that ELF’s plan was carried out with local help.
“The mainstream environmental roups have credibly issued statements deploring the arson attack,” wrote columnist Al Knight in the newspaper’s October 25 edition. “But it goes beyond credibility to hope that no Colorado-based individuals might have been involved; local critics have for years waged an emotional crusade to block Vail’s ski-area expansion.”
In some media circles, the perpetrators of this attack on private property were treated considerably better than have been members of the radical anti-abortion movement.
According to Media Watch, a newsletter published by the Media Research Center, the murder of Buffalo abortionist Dr. Barnett Slepian was characterized by CBS’ Dan Rather as the work of a “violent, sometimes murderous section of the pro-life movement,” while ABC’s John Miller noted: “Activists of the most radical end of the pro-life camp make no apologies for the sniper. . . .”
But ELF’s role in the Vail fires, according to ABC’s Tom Foreman, was not viewed as being at the “most radical end of the environmentalist camp,” and he suggested sympathetically: “Many environmentalists in Vail . . . are afraid their cause will be tainted by the violence.”
Some free-market environmentalists, including The Thoreau Institute’s Randal O’Toole, argue that market incentives should be created to encourage people to save the environment. This should be a top priority for the Republican Party, said O’Toole, who noted that the GOP, because of its own inability to create a long-term policy, finds itself painted by the Democrats as being anti-environment.
“The bureaucratic, regulatory methods proposed by the Democrats are doing the environment more harm than good,” he ,said.