‘Powder Burn’ out in paperback
Editor’s note: Former Newsweek correspondent Daniel Glick, whose 2001 book “Powder Burn” is now out in paperback, will sign books and answer questions at 4 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 18, at Verbatim book store in Vail. Published by PublicAffairs, the paperback edition costs $14. Here is Glick’s updated postscript to “Powder Burn,” which detailed the events leading up to the Vail arson attacks in 1998:As Vail celebrates its 40th anniversary during the winter of 2002-03, natural and unnatural world events continue to reverberate through this high alpine valley. Epic wildfires and prolonged drought, the threat of war, a faltering economy, stock market jitters, scandalous corporate collapses, and Sept. 11 have conspired to forcefully insert reality into a place that has assiduously marketed itself as an alternative reality.In many ways, reality had already infiltrated Vail on Oct. 19, 1998.Although the date doesn’t have the national ring to it of Sept. 11, that October day represents a watershed, not just for Vail but for the entire ski and recreation industry. The arson on Vail Mountain provided the impetus for ski areas from Squaw Valley, Calif., to Killington, Vt., to think more seriously about the environmental impact of mass recreation.Resort companies have been forced to reckon with the previously unthinkable: that their infrastructure and development plans have become potential targets for radical eco-warriors.Although the flames from the $12 million Vail arson have long since been extinguished and the buildings rebuilt, the arsonists left an enduring legacy. Though the crime is still unsolved, the topic of terrorism, both domestic and international, remains at the forefront of national consciousness. In February 2002, Vail Resorts Inc.’s senior vice president for public affairs appeared before a congressional subcommittee investigating eco-terrorism. As the highest-profile victim of an attack claimed by the Earth Liberation Front, Porter Wharton III told the committee that “the company and the community still carry scars, emotional scars that still exist to this day.”Four years after the massive Two Elk Lodge went up in smoke, nobody has been charged or convicted of setting the fires on Vail Mountain. To this day, the ELF remains elusive in every way. Although the FBI says that the ELF remains a priority of law enforcement’s domestic terrorism efforts, the FBI’s successes have not kept pace with ELF-claimed activity. James Jarboe, domestic-terrorism chief of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, testified during the February congressional hearings that the ELF is “the largest and most active U.S.-based terrorist group” and has already caused more than $43 million in damage since 1996. Jarboe denounced the ELF as part of a dangerous trend of “special interest extremism,” but acknowledged that law enforcement “has a long way to go to adequately address the problem of eco-terrorism.”In the past two years, a few purported eco-terrorists have been arrested, charged, and in several cases, prosecuted. Several arsons in the Phoenix, Ariz., area were pinned on Mark Warren Sands, who pled guilty to the felonies. Sands did not assert any connection to the ELF, but did claim to be part of a group called the “Coalition to Save the Preserves,” referring to the Phoenix Mountain Preserve near Scottsdale. Sands targeted luxury homes under construction in sensitive wildlands, a similar tactic to ELF arsons. At the trial, however, a taped confession revealed that Sands might have been a mentally unstable arsonist fighting personal demons rather than an eco-terrorist fighting the destruction of the desert. Nonetheless, FBI official Jarboe trumpeted Sands’ arrest as a breakthrough in eco-terrorist convictions.In February 2001, a joint terrorism task force in New York helped get a conviction against three teenagers in a case that involved a rash of suspicious fires in Long Island subdivisions under construction. At the trial, one of the teens stated that the acts were committed in sympathy with the ELF’s goals, although there was no indication the teens were part of a larger group. They were convicted, as was one adult collaborator.Investigators remain frustrated, and it’s no wonder. The geographic and apparent ideological spread of actions claimed by the ELF argues against a cohesive strategy or national chain of command. Prosecutors in the Long Island case even tried to use tricks from organized crime racketeering investigations by charging the juveniles as adults, then offering plea bargains for the arsonists to rat out their bosses. It didn’t seem to work.Unlike the well-organized and well-financed structure of Al Qaeda, from Saudi billionaire Osama bin Laden on down, the ELF apparently lacks any centralized structure or a “Mr. Big” running the show from the shadows. The link between attacks on a U.S. Forest Service research station in Pennsylvania, an Oregon lumber company, and a ski area in Colorado don’t add up to a clear pattern. As one federal law enforcement agent sighed to me while I was reporting for this postscript, “the similarity is, none of them has been solved.”Though I don’t believe that these far-flung ELF actions are part of an orchestrated national campaign, I predict we’ll see a lot more acts of eco-terrorism than we’ll see successful prosecutions of eco-terrorists. What we are seeing is the actions of a new breed of true believers, in some ways not unlike the suicide bombers in Israel and the disaffected Islamic foot soldiers of bin Laden’s followers. Frustration and orthodoxy make for an explosive combination.Unfortunately, the current political climate will do nothing but inflame any self-avowed eco-terrorist’s ardor. For anybody who believes that we are doing great harm to this planet, these are disheartening times. The administration of George W. Bush appears to be intent on angering environmentalists around the world, whether the administration is withdrawing the United States from the Kyoto protocols on climate change or attempting to rewrite laws that govern environmental protections for national forests. Frustration among environmentalists of all stripes is rising. Ominously, perhaps, the ELF website opens with a photograph of Two Elk in flames.* * *At the same congressional eco-terrorism hearing where the FBI was trumpeting its arrests of the Long Island teenagers and the Phoenix arsonist, former ELF spokesman Craig Rosebraugh appeared under subpoena. He didn’t exactly cooperate. Rosebraugh invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination more than 50 times, and the committee learned nothing new about the ELF’s inner workings.Ironically, at about the same time, former Enron CEO Ken Lay had also been asked to testify about Enron’s spectacular corporate collapse. Lay, like Rosebraugh, took the Fifth repeatedly. Rep. George R. Nethercutt Jr. (R-Wash.), a member of the panel interrogating Rosebraugh, became so frustrated he asked Rosebraugh if he was in any way related to Lay.Although Enron’s chief preferred properties in Aspen rather than Vail, other disgraced corporate chieftains have sold their Vail properties in the wake of other front- page corporate disasters. As the accounting shenanigans of Fortune 500 companies become known, Bernard Ebbers, the beleaguered CEO of WorldCom, Dennis Kozlowski, the former head of Tyco, and the Rigas family of the failed Adelphia Communications all put Vail-area homes and condos up for sale. The corporate crash-and-burn of 2002 continues to reverberate in the Vail region. Although Vail Resorts was not connected to any accounting scandals in any way, the company’s auditing firm, Arthur Andersen, was and Vail distanced themselves from Andersen’s questionable accounting practices.As Vail’s CEO Adam Aron aptly wrote in a letter to employees at the beginning of this season, “hiccups on Wall Street cause hardship on Main Street.”* * *Even with Biblical portents like this summer’s massive wildfires and ongoing drought, there is much to celebrate from Vail’s point of view. Blue Sky Basin has drawn raves from ski writers and locals alike. Two Elk Lodge is larger and even more elegant than ever. Despite having to lay off more than 40 mid-level managers and reducing bonuses for employees, Vail Resorts continues to expand and diversify. The company purchased Heavenly Valley ski resort on the California/Nevada border at Lake Tahoe.They have received permission to expand their operations at Breckenridge. They have built new golf courses, acquired the Lodge at Rancho Mirage in Palm Springs, Calif., and anticipate this year’s opening of the new Ritz-Carlton at Beaver Creek, where they are half owners. The federal planning process surrounding the White River National Forest, where Vail is located, continues to be amended in Vail’s favor. Two of their resorts, Vail and Beaver Creek, rated in the top five resorts in North America in Ski magazine’s annual poll, with Vail at #1 and Beaver Creek at #5.By all accounts, the company’s relationship to the greater Vail community has improved dramatically since pre-arson days. In addition, Vail CEO Adam Aron insists that he never fired anyone for having a dog in the office, and Aspen CEO Pat O’Donnell doesn’t recall who told him the story in the first place. “It never happened,” Aron told me emphatically, and I promised to clear this matter up in the paperback edition.As their 40th anniversary season kicks off with a self-congratulatory air, however, the economic woes brought on by Sept. 11 and a plunging stock market continue to impact the travel and tourism sector. In early autumn, Aron announced that 400 of Vail’s top managers would not receive performance-based raises this year. Then, just before ski season began, the company eliminated 100 jobs as a cost-cutting measure, including Vail Resorts, Inc. President Andy Daly and Senior Vice President Porter Wharton III. In these tight economic times, everybody across the ski industry in Colorado is praying for snow to lift their hopes; last year was one of the worst snow years on record.Vail also saw the symbolic passing of an era this past summer, when co-founder Pete Seibert died of cancer at the age of 77. I’d like to thank him here for his generosity in helping me with Powder Burn, even though he was also working on a book about Vail while I was researching mine. He was fondly remembered at a “Pioneers” weekend held in the fall that drew more than 1,200 of Vail’s early investors and visitors.* * *The lynx, meanwhile, is not faring particularly well. Of the ninety-six lynx captured in Canada and released in Colorado during 1999 and 2000, nearly half have been shot, run over by vehicles, starved, or otherwise met their demise. About 50 are known to survive, but biologists have not yet seen signs of reproductive behavior among the new immigrants. The Colorado Division of Wildlife is still considering bringing more lynx in from Canada, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is considering ways to conserve lynx habitat now that the animal is protected by federal law.In Vail’s corporate headquarters, Porter Wharton III continued to display a stuffed lynx in his office until his job was terminated in late October. The lynx is named “Casper,” as in Casper the Ghost.Daniel Glick
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