The Last Resort

How an ambitious but troubled plan to create an exclusive skiers’ paradise may revive—or cripple—one of Colorado’s last authentic mountain towns.

June 2011

On the morning of October 19, 1998, Mike Jackson drove to his job in Vail, where he was helping develop Category III, a 645-acre back-bowl area. He had been working on the project since 1994, shortly after graduating with a landscape architecture degree from the University of Arkansas. While most of his classmates designed golf courses or parks for their final projects, Jackson wanted to design ski trails. He hoped to be a visionary who could look at a wooded, uneven mountainside and figure out how to transform it into a destination where happy skiers and snowboarders ripped down his runs. Vail had been publicly discussing expansion, so Jackson finished his own project and came to Colorado to present it to the resort’s planning department. The Vail folks were so impressed by how similar his ideas were to their own plan that less than a month later, they put the kid on their payroll.

In the 1990s, Vail went from just another nice ski area to the 800-pound gorilla of Colorado’s ski industry. The company went on a buying spree, acquiring Arrowhead, Bachelor Gulch, Breckenridge, and Keystone, and in the process became one of the primary employers in Eagle and Summit counties. In 1992, a Denver company named Turkey Creek—which had been consolidating land on and around Battle Mountain—dangled a development option on the land in front of Vail. The property sat about a mile from the Category III project, which meant Vail could expand its acreage again, build an even higher-end base area, and connect it by gondola to Vail and possibly Beaver Creek. Vail snapped up the offer, dropping $4.5 million for a 50 percent stake.

Vail, though, kept its Battle Mountain option quiet because it might have endangered the Category III expansion, which was moving through the federal approval process. But after details on Vail’s expansion prospects for Battle Mountain emerged in a February 1998 court deposition, some biologists with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service raised the concern that the development would threaten the local Canadian lynx population. Lynx were barely hanging on in the area, but the state was planning on re-introducing the animal. The FWS ended up approving Category III, as did the U.S. Forest Service. Environmental groups were enraged. That summer, Jackson and Vail employees drove past protesters daily on their way to work. The Defenders of Wildlife filed an injunction to prevent Vail from starting the expansion, but on October 14, 1998, a federal judge overruled the environmental objections. Vail started cutting trails two days later.

On the 19th, Jackson arrived at work to see Vail’s base area in chaos as smoke billowed off the mountaintop. “I was in shock,” he says. “I didn’t know what it was. I went up to help direct traffic” while the fire department ran trucks up the mountain. Two Elk, a 550-seat ski lodge, was ablaze, as were ski patrol headquarters and four lifts. The damage cost the company $12 million. “We had seen some innocent protesting going into work,” Jackson says, “but this was something totally different.”

The Earth Liberation Front, an eco-terrorist group, soon released a statement to the Denver media claiming responsibility: “On behalf of the lynx, five buildings and four ski lifts at Vail were reduced to ashes on the night of Sunday, October 18th. Vail, Inc. is already the largest ski operation in North America and now wants to expand even further. The 12 miles of roads and 885 acres of clearcuts will ruin the last, best lynx habitat in the state. Putting profits ahead of Colorado’s wildlife will not be tolerated. This action is just a warning. We will be back if this greedy corporation continues to trespass into wild and unroaded areas. For your safety and convenience, we strongly advise skiers to choose other destinations until Vail cancels its inexcusable plans for expansion.”

Vail rebuilt Two Elks and the chairlifts, but the company was spooked. The Earth Liberation Front arsonists remained at large. (They were eventually convicted and sentenced to prison in 2007.) In October 1999, Vail dropped its plans for the Battle Mountain development and publicly stated that it wanted to turn portions of the land into open space through a conservation easement. Turkey Creek responded by suing Vail for backing out of the development deal. As that court case dragged on, Category III was renamed Blue Sky Basin and opened to acclaim in 2000. Finally, in 2003, a judge ruled in favor of Turkey Creek.

Now Turkey Creek, which wasn’t interested in developing the land itself, needed to find a buyer—a visionary rich and bold enough to clean up multiple Superfund sites, knock down the ghost town of Gilman, secure hard-fought water rights, and convince Minturn that a ski development was in its best interests. For all its difficulties, Battle Mountain was still considered the holy grail of a potential ski resort. All it needed was a messiah.