Vail Resorts’ CEO Rob Katz, who was in New York City on Monday to accept a major environmental award from Travel + Leisure Magazine, noted last week how far the company has come in terms of its image on green issues.
“For a company that obviously was on the receiving end of one of the most impactful acts of environment terrorism back in 1998, to go from that all the way to this [award] I think is great,” Katz said, referring to an arson attack on Vail Mountain by radical environmentalists 14 years ago this week.
Fires set by members of the Earth Liberation Front on Oct. 19, 1998 burned down the mountaintop Two Elk Lodge restaurant and Patrol Headquarters and damaged three chairlifts, Perpetrated in the name of the endangered Canada lynx and meant to protest Vail’s Blue Sky Basin expansion, the fires caused $12 million in damage and were deemed the mostly costly act of eco-terrorism in U.S. history.
But Katz made it clear that the ski company was instilled with a strong environmental ethic – and run by people he considers conservationists – long before he took over the helm in March of 2006.
“That kind of environmental ethic very much lived here, but the one prism we shifted a little bit was to say, ‘Yes, it’s the right thing to help take care of the environment because we use the environment to make money,’” Katz said, pointing to the move to offset 100 percent of the company’s electrical consumption with wind credits.
That move early in the Katz regime made Vail Resorts one of the largest corporate consumers of wind power in the United States. Katz later shifted that financial focus to helping restore the 138,000-acre Hayman burn area in the mountains southwest of Denver.
The Travel + Leisure Global Vision Award recognizes leadership in social responsibility and environmental stewardship. In the last year Vail Resorts contributed more than $6. 5 million to non-profit organizations focused on local children in the company’s resort communities and nonprofits working to improve forest health in both Colorado and California.
“When we do the right thing for the environment and we tell our guests what we’re doing, it just reinforces to our guests how beautiful and special the environment is here in Vail,” Katz said. “That’s both good for business and it’s the right thing to do, and that change in prism has helped.”
The company has reduced its energy use by 10 percent since 2008, according to Katz, and has now launched “The Next Ten” program to reduce consumption by another 10 percent. And Vail Resorts Echo Day, an annual community service volunteer day at the company’s resorts from Lake Tahoe to Jamaica, resulted in 1,046 volunteers providing 4,100 service hours for projects such as riverbank restoration along the Eagle River in Edwards.
Katz was on the Vail Resorts board of directors when the Vail fires occurred in 1998, but since taking over as CEO he says he’s simply given greater clarity to an environmental ethic that was already very much in place in Vail and throughout the various communities where Vail Resorts operates.
“That change all of a sudden built a sense of pride and connection that people have with the community that I think was there anyway, but we just made it a little more clear, and it gave us the confidence and maybe the permission to formalize and beef up a lot of our best conservation efforts,” Katz said.
In 2008, Vail Resorts won a Conde Nast Traveler Magazine World Savers Award for “Protecting the Planet.” Like the Travel + Leisure Award, Conde Nast praised the company for forest-health initiatives – donating a dollar of each lift ticket sold to the National Forest Foundation -- and for renewable energy and sustainability efforts such as purchasing wind credits.
But do those efforts help to counter environmentalist concerns over projects such as the Peak 6 expansion at Breckenridge? That’s a topic that western historian Michael Childers tackles in his new book “Colorado Powder Keg.” Childers addresses the Vail arson attack – an episode in Vail’s past that’s sure to get plenty of play in this 50th anniversary season.
Chelsea Gerlach, a member of the Earth Liberation Front, has been in prison for the crime since 2007. She granted a jailhouse interview to Outside Magazine that year, and is expected to be released next year.
Vail Mayor Andy Daly was president of Vail Resorts when Gerlach and another ELF member “tried to destroy ‘our’ mountain. The ‘our’ was a community ‘our,’” he says, remembering a town meeting soon after the fires, where he rallied hundreds of people to the task of getting Vail open in time for the 98-99 season.
“We all sat around and had beers together, and it really started the season off with a sense of unity against some extraordinary adversity that clearly impacted the town as well as the mountain,” Daly said.
“The effort [the ski company employees] put in was just absolutely extraordinary,” Daly added. “To think that Two Elk was burned down Oct. 19, and I stood there and had a cup of coffee in the temporary Two Elk, which we opened on Nov. 24. That reflected on the extraordinary resources and capabilities that we put into getting everything back on track.”