Vail Resorts gets a mouthful of PETA
This is the time of year when Vail Resorts would normally be thrilled to have images of a crackling fire in a cozy ski lodge appearing in national magazines.But when the flames are consuming the lodge, allegedly the work of eco-terrorist arsonists four years ago, and the ads are running in Newsweek, ski company officials feel their sphincters instantly tightening.”When I first saw (the ad), it took my breath away,” says Vail Chief Operating Officer Bill Jensen. “I thought, ‘What’s this? Oh my God.'”The ad, which so far has only appeared in Newsweek but may soon run in U.S. News & World Report and Time, was paid for by the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) in Washington, D.C., a conservative, pro-industry lobbying organization.It shows Two Elk Lodge burning to the ground on Oct. 19, 1998, when members of the shadowy Earth Liberation Front allegedly set seven fires on Vail Mountain, causing $12 million in damage.The photo, snapped by Vail firefighter Mark Mobley, has become the poster child for radical environmentalism, and the Vail fires are still thought to be the most costly act of eco-terrorism on U.S. soil.The ad targets PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which the CCF says supports the Earth Liberation Front and its radical tactics. It quotes PETA officials sympathetically supporting ELF’s agenda, and asks, “PETA: As warm and cuddly as you thought?”PETA, while viewed by many as extremist for its pro-animal positions, is a legitimate non-profit group that uses non-violent methods to oppose human consumption and exploitation of animals.But the CCF alleges, and provides tax documents as proof, that PETA has provided $1,500 of financial support to ELF, which claims to have set the Vail fires to protest the ski company’s Blue Sky Basin expansion. At the time, that project was clear-cutting trees in an area widely believed to be prime habitat for the endangered Canada lynx, a small wildcat similar to a bobcat.Vail, meanwhile, is caught in the middle of the controversial ad blitz. The Colorado ski industry, since 9/11, has been marketing itself as a secure haven for vacationers seeking a safe escape from embattled big cities.”That’s where (the ad is) really insidious on their part,” PETA general counsel Jeff Kerr says. “The timing of these ads clearly is playing on the fears of people in the wake of Sept. 11, and that is the height of inappropriateness.”Mike Burita, communications director for the Center for Consumer Freedom, says, “We haven’t labeled these organizations as terrorists, the FBI has. If PETA is going to finance them those are the types of activities that they’re endorsing. If they want to publicly condemn these groups, we’ll lay off them.”Vail’s Jensen, meanwhile, wishes the photo would just go away, but he admits it is now in the public domain and that the ski company has no legal recourse. He’s just thankful the ad only identifies the fire in general terms.”For people in this valley the image is so powerful, and people who have connection to Vail will recognize it instantly, but for the general population it will just look like a building on fire,” Jensen says. “It brings back emotions that probably a lot of us thought we had moved beyond.”Jensen says he is concerned with the negative marketing impacts of the campaign, but doubts it will cause people to change vacation plans to Vail.”The emotional scarring (of the photo) brings up all the issues of safety and security and people’s vacations and has a connection for those of us in the valley who are concerned with tourism,” Jensen says. “(But) only people particularly familiar with Two Elk and the circumstances surrounding the fire would recognize it as Vail. It’s not like people in Europe would recognize what it was.”The CCF’s Burita, who says his group at one time was financed by big tobacco but now is largely supported by the food and beverage industries, says any marketing damage to Vail or the Colorado ski industry is unintentional.”We’re not trying to do anything that’s going to hinder the ski industry, but we think it’s important that the public is aware ,” Burita says. “Despite the pain that this brings back (for Vail residents), we think it’s important that the public knows that there are these organizations out there engaged in these kinds of activities.”No one was injured or killed in the Vail fires, and four years later, no arrests have been made. ELF apparently remains active in Colorado, recently threatening to destroy water storage facilities near Winter Park.”Regarding the Vail fires and the Earth Liberation Front, that is an ongoing investigation,” says FBI special agent Ann Atanasio. “We have no new information that we are reporting. The same thing with the threats in Winter Park. That investigation is continuing.”PETA lawyer Kerr denies any connection to ELF or the Vail fires, but refuses to condemn the attacks.”We don’t take a position,” Kerr says of ELF. “Their tactics are their tactics. PETA is a non-violent, peaceful social change group, and it’s not for us to condemn or advocate on behalf of anyone else.”Pressed on where PETA stands on the ski industry and its expansion into the National Forest, Kerr says, “We think that the animals have right to their habitat and that they should be left alone. It’s not the idea of recreation (that PETA is opposed to) it’s tread lightly. Don’t interfere with the animals, you’re in their home. Be respectful as a guest.”Kerr says a quote in the ad by PETA President Ingrid Newkirk “Our nonviolent tactics are not as effective” was taken out of context, but is essentially true.A quote in the ad by PETA campaign director Bruce Friedrich “It would be great if all the fast-food outlets, slaughterhouses, these laboratories and the banks who fund them exploded tomorrow” was entirely inappropriate, Kerr says, and that Friedrich was reprimanded.”I don’t know, maybe he had too much cough syrup that morning,” Kerr says.