Browning: Vail’s bighorns must be saved

The town of Vail — and Vail Resorts insofar as it owns and operates Vail Mountain — are inextricably intertwined, and the key players in the valley. Yet there is a third party with a vital stake that is not at the table: Mother Nature. Her stake precedes the town’s and the resort company’s by millennia.

Mike Browning

The town is starting to recognize this, as evidenced by its recent sustainability planning process and revisions to development regulations along Gore Creek. Vail Resorts is also starting to say the right things, at least as part of its public relations program. Vail Resorts’ Zero Waste by 2030 and Epic Promise “to have net zero operating impact on forests and habitat” sound great.

Now it’s time to put these fine words to the test. Vail Resorts just announced plans to develop the property north of the East Vail Exit, which is critical habitat for a sizable herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. Studies conducted only a few years ago concluded that development could cause eradication of this herd. If the town and Vail Resorts are serious about their commitments to protect local wildlife, the East Vail parcel must not be developed.

Vail Resorts and the town engaged in negotiations in 2020 whereby Vail Resorts would trade this parcel in exchange for other property owned by the town that was more suitable for residential development. It looked like a win-win solution that would also be a win for the bighorn sheep.

Then, in late 2020, Vail Resorts abruptly pulled out of those discussions without explanation or so much as a “sorry” to the bighorns. The town is now considering condemning the parcel. Before both sides spend big bucks on litigation, they need to recognize their common interests.

Vail Resorts has publicly pledged to protect critical habitat. The town has begun serious efforts at a long-term sustainability plan. Destruction of East Vail’s bighorn habitat would be hideously inconsistent with both. The parcel should be deeded to the town in exchange for other property more suitable for employee housing.

The parties must get back to the negotiation table. Unfortunately, commencing a condemnation action appears necessary to get Vail Resorts leaders back in their seat. Both sides must decide how serious they are about their pledges to protect habitat habitat, and they must acknowledge the interests of a third party who is not at the table: Mother Nature.

For all too long, our local wildlife have been hemmed in and harassed, with heartbreaking results. If Vail Resorts and the town are serious in their pledges to protect critical habitat habitat, they must find a way to protect the herd’s habitat from development.

If condemnation is the only way to achieve this, then the town should pursue condemnation and Vail Resorts should stop pretending to care about our local wildlife. It’s not too late for Vail Resorts to keep Vail’s EpicPromise, as voiced by Rob Katz: “The environment is our business, and we have a special obligation to protect it.”

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