New questions arise over use of public land for Vail

Environmentalists decry ski resort's expansion plans, saying it is at

Critics of a plan to expand America's most famous ski resort think they've found a smoking gun - one they hope will force a halt to the multimillion-dollar expansion project and, perhaps, give new life to a threatened species.

The evidence in question is a report by US government field biologists, unearthed last month by Colorado environmentalists who want to stop a huge new development at the luxuriant Vail resort.

To critics of the Vail expansion, the report is proof that rare Canada lynx still live in this alpine territory - and that the US Forest Service, capitulating to political pressure, was wrong to approve the ski plan in the first place.

To those who see Vail as the economic engine that drives the mountain region west of Denver, the report is nothing more than a routine intra-agency disagreement and a case of sour grapes. Vail Resorts has jumped through all the legal hoops required to build new ski facilities on public land - and it's unfair now to bemoan the decision, they say.

A lawsuit brought by environmental groups, alleging that the Forest Service approved the Vail plan without regard for impacts on lynx, is now in the hands of a federal appeals court. A decision is expected by July 1, but even when it comes, it is unlikely to bridge the chasm of bitterness and mistrust that has come to characterize so many Western disputes over use of public land.

"The question is, should we be subsidizing Vail getting bigger at the expense of precious public resources - which include the lynx?" asks Ted Zukoski, a lawyer for the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, representing the environmental coalition.

The report in question - completed this spring by the Colorado field office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request - surfaces at a sensitive juncture. By July 8, the US is expected to decide whether the Canada lynx will be officially listed as a "threatened" species. Construction on Vail Mountain, meanwhile, has been temporarily halted since a fire last October - an arson reportedly carried out "on behalf of the lynx." Late last month, the FBI offered $50,000 for information leading to a conviction in the unsolved crime.

All along, environmental interests have characterized the fight as Vail vs. the lynx. The key disagreement has been whether the tuft-eared wildcat - seldom seen in these parts - roams the same 4,600 acres where Vail Resorts intends to build ski runs and other amenities.

The conventional wisdom says the area is not lynx country. The last confirmed sighting of lynx was in 1974, when one was trapped illegally near Vail.

"There are lots of reports of lynx, but you can't say definitively," says Rick Kahn of the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW). "Our official position is that we don't think there is any viable population of lynx in the state - at Vail or elsewhere."

Vail Resorts, too, doubts that lynx are in the expansion area - but, just in case, the company agreed to scale back its plans and make other concessions to protect habitat for the cat.

"If lynx are in the area, it's not a huge population, and it's not a good habitat for lynx," says Vail spokesman Paul Witt.

But the Fish and Wildlife Service's local office, in its report, suggests the Vail expansion could contribute to wiping out Colorado's lynx. The document, dated March 1999, asserts that evidence of lynx activity in Vail's expansion area "must be considered substantial." It details recent data pointing to the presence of lynx - from photos of lynx tracks to "credible sightings" of the wildcat.

"We've had the most number of sightings, tracks, and [carcasses] in that area - including right up to this year," says Gary Patton, the FWS biologist who wrote the report after studying the Vail project area.

Mr. Patton also concluded that the development would jeopardize the survival of lynx in Colorado. That conclusion was overruled by FWS headquarters in Washington, but he says he was never supplied with a "rational explanation" why.

Vail Resorts has become, in recent years, a veritable ski empire. After a 1996 merger, it owns Breckenridge and Keystone ski areas in Colorado, in addition to nearby Beaver Creek. It has political connections, too: Vice President Al Gore reportedly spent New Year's Eve at the home of Vail chief executive officer Adam Aron. The resort is a generous campaign contributor, with ties to the Democratic Party.

Not everyone gives credence to the FWS field report. "We're not entirely convinced," says Vail's Mr. Witt.

Complicating the picture is the state's $2.2 million effort to reintroduce lynx by importing them from Canada.

Critics see it as a hastily planned effort that, succeed or fail, may serve to shield Vail from criticism. If the newly released lynx starve, as some already have, officials may conclude Colorado does not offer suitable habitat for the forest-dwelling cat, they say.

If it succeeds, "then there is less of a need to protect habitat ... adjacent to Vail," the DOW's Mr. Kahn wrote in a Nov. 12, 1997, e-mail to his colleagues, after a meeting with Vail executives about the reintroduction.

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