|The following article first appeared in the November 1998 edition of Fur Farm Letter, published by Fur Commission USA, and is reproduced with permission.
Vail Attack Spurs Feds into Action
The scale of an arson attack at America's busiest ski resort could mark a turning point in the war against eco- and animal rights terrorism.
On the night of Oct. 18, seven fires broke out on Vail Mountain, Colorado, causing $12 million of damage to infrastructure, including a 30,000-square-foot lodge that was reduced to ashes. Responsibility was claimed by the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), an eco-terrorist group which has done joint actions with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), and which is said to have ties to EarthFirst! If the claim is authentic, the conflagration is America's most costly eco/animal rights crime to date.
Yet ironically, this dark cloud could have a silver lining. While eco-terrorism has been growing in the U.S., the sheer scale of the Vail disaster, and the broad condemnation of it, may prompt federal enforcement agencies to move eco-terror up their list of priorities.
ELF claimed responsibility for the fires in an e-mail to a Denver radio station, saying they were in protest at a plan by resort operator Vail Associates to turn 885 acres of forest into ski runs. The problem with the plan, in ELF's view, is that it removes potential habitat for the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis).
Colorado is considered to be the extreme southern edge of this cat's range, with the total US population thought to number less than a thousand. Since 1880, there have been just 65 reliable Canada lynx sightings in Colorado, the last being in 1973. Far more common, and often mistaken for the Canada lynx, is the common bobcat (Lynx rufus), which ranges from Canada to Mexico and numbers over a million in the US alone. Compared with the bobcat, the Canada lynx has slighter longer ear tufts and bigger "snowshoe" feet, suited to catching rabbits in the snows of Canada.
In 1995, Jasper Carlton of the Boulder-based Biodiversity Legal Foundation petitioned the US Fish & Wildlife Service to list the lynx under the Endangered Species Act, and then joined Defenders of Wildlife and 15 other groups in a lawsuit aimed at forcing the FWS's hand. In October 1997, he joined environmental groups in appealing the Forest Service's approval of the Vail expansion.
"They say you can't show any imminent threats to the lynx," Carlton said. "I say you can't show me any lynx. So every car that goes by is a threat to the lynx, every single action is a threat."*
In April of this year the FWS determined that the "Canada lynx in the contiguous United States constitutes a distinct population segment under the [Endangered Species] Act. The Service finds that listing the Canada lynx population in the contiguous United States is warranted but precluded by work on other species having higher priority for listing."
That angered a lot of people. Prioritizing with endangered species? Thus was the stage set for the confrontation in Vail.
A week before the blazes, the court ruled against Carlton and company. The expansion plan was not considered by the court to be a threat to the Canada lynx, and could therefore proceed. And for better or worse, that should have been the end of the story.
Not for ELF, which had no intention of accepting defeat gracefully. Instead it announced, in truly fascistic tone, "Putting profits ahead of Colorado's wildlife will not be tolerated."
In a statement disseminated by ALF's North American press office, ELF claimed "full responsibility for this action to save the lynx, which will be killed if expansion is allowed. ... The 12 miles of roads and 885 acres of clearcuts will ruin the last, best lynx habitat in the state." It also threatened further action and warned skiiers to stay away.
Hard Ball Anyone?
Now ELF, and eco-terrorist groups like it, could be in for a shock. By playing hard ball, and on such a scale, it has thrown down a challenge to federal enforcement agencies that they must rise to or lose face. And signs are that the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms know this.
According to the Vail Daily News, following the fires the town was "inundated" with some 50 FBI and BAFT agents who arrived from all over the country and included specialists in fields as diverse as chemistry, arson and photography. They also included veterans of such crime scenes as Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center.
Would it be too much to hope that these are the best agents available? And if so, that their employers are hell-bent on putting people behind bars?
Helping them towards this end will be the pressure of an outraged public looking for justice. With one voice, local residents, groups opposed to the resort expansion, and mainstream environmental groups have been unanimous in condemning ELF.
"There is an antagonism below the surface, but these fires have created a lot of sympathy for Vail Associates," said Vail Town Manager Bob McLaurin. "I think it's going to pull this community together."
"We do not regard this as an attack on some faceless corporate entity," said town counselor Michael Arnett. "We take it personally. We take it as a threat to the safety and well being of every man, woman and child in Eagle County."
Ted Zukoski, an attorney for the groups that sued to stop the expansion plan, called the perpetrators of the attack "despicable criminals and terrorists ... It absolutely sickens and disgusts me that anyone who would undertake such action would masquerade as an environmentalist."