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Security Beefed Up At Ski Resort

Vowing to protect skiers at the jet-set playground, the nation's largest ski resort has beefed up security following a series of arson fires atop Vail Mountain.

Investigators on Thursday officially blamed arsonists for the fires that destroyed a Vail Mountain restaurant, ski patrol building, and chairlifts on Monday. CBS News Correspondent Bob McNamara reports.

Authorities said accelerants were found on the mountain, where chemists and officers using specially trained dogs had been looking for clues.

"We've eliminated any and all accidental causes. We are classifying it as incendiary," said Tommy Wittman, regional director for the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.

In an email sent to KCFR-FM Colorado Public Radio in Denver, a shadowy group called the Earth Liberation Front claimed Wednesday that it set the fires to protest Vail's ski run expansion into a national forest threatening endangered wildlife.

The group's message urged a skier boycott of Vail and threatened more trouble, saying "putting profits ahead of Colorado's wildlife will not be tolerated."

Vail officials said they were taking precautions to protect skiers at their resort, declining to elaborate.

"We will take them seriously so our guests do not have to worry," said Adam Aron, Vail Resorts chief executive officer.

Other Colorado resorts were alert.

"We are concerned. We are also ready," said Sheriff Joe Morales of Summit County, adjacent to Vail's Eagle County and home to ski areas owned by Vail Resorts. "There is a heightened level of security and awareness."

Vail officials fear that the gondolas and chairlifts that have carried Princess Diana, former President Ford, and the Gore family could be empty if skiers are scared off by threats of sabotage.

Vail is hoping for a record number of skiers this season. The weather phenomenon La Nina is likely to bring above-average snow, and Vail is the host of the prestigious World Alpine Ski Championships in February.

No one has been arrested in connection with Monday's attacks, which, at estimated damage costs of over $12 million, were the most costly act of eco-terrorism in America.

"I would believe that it is valid - that it is a genuine statement from the Earth Liberation Front," says Katie Fedor of the Animal Liberation Front.

The fire came just days after Vail began clearing trees on an expansion project bitterly opposed by environmentalist groups. Last month, Vail won a major court battle against the groups, which say the expansion would interfere with plans to reintroduce the lynx to the region.

In a letter sent to news media outlets, the ELF said it carried out the Vail arson "to stop the destruction of natural habitat and the exploitation of the environment." It said the expansion of the biggest and busiest ski resort in the United States would "ruin the last, best lynx habitat in te state."

Arson and vandalisim have been a calling card of the Earth Liberation Front for several years.

Fires set in federal agency facilities from the Pacific Northwest to New England have been linked to the group.

"They emphasize non-violence against humans, but when you look at our government's definition of terrorisim, that also includes property," says Barry Calusen, an eco-terrorism expert.

Now, less than three weeks before Vail's ski season, many residents feel victimized.

"Whoever did this attacked the livelihood of every man, woman, and child in the valley," says Vail resident Jonathan Staufer.

There is a fear now that many never felt before.

"You know, it's like living in Beirut or something, whereas before, we lived in paradise," says Deborah Dawson.

The prospect of environmental terrorism in a winter wonderland has brought a deepening chill.

Police Chief Greg Morrison said he and some of his staff had recently completed FBI anti-terrorist training in preparation for the Alpine Championships. The training was ordered as a standard precaution and not in response to the arson, he said.
Morrison said law enforcement agencies are prepared for serious problems and insist the slopes are safe.

"I will be the first one on the mountain," he said. "You can follow me."

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