A swirling storm of social media backlash hit Vail Resorts this week as beloved secret structures on ski resort lands were destroyed in an effort to prevent marijuana consumption.
A number of structures reportedly associated with prohibited marijuana use, and constructed illegally on U.S. Forest Service land, have been destroyed during the last few weeks. The structures, often known as “smoke shacks,” have been destroyed as Vail Resorts and the Forest Service are made aware of them. Mountain operations teams and USFS officials have destroyed “several” over the last year at Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone and Breckenridge.
On Feb. 14, an “Inside Edition” video showed skiers and riders smoking what appeared to be marijuana inside one such structure at Breckenridge Ski Resort — a two-story building known as “Leo’s.” Officials destroyed the structure using explosives shortly after the video aired. A Facebook page, “Leo’s Rebuild Project,” has received more than 2,300 likes since Feb. 22.
In a prepared statement, Blaise Carrig, president of Vail Resorts’ Mountain Division, said: “In addition to destroying illegal structures where this kind of illegal activity may be taking place, we are communicating the legalities around marijuana use with our guests and the community.”
Public consumption of marijuana is illegal under Colorado law, even though the state now allows for retail sales. The four Colorado ski resorts operated by Vail Resorts — Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone — all are located on Forest Service land, where possession and consumption of marijuana is illegal. Using any ski lift, ski slope or trail while under the influence of drugs or alcohol also is prohibited under the Colorado Ski Safety Act.
In her report to the Breckenridge Town Council on Feb. 25, Breckenridge Ski Resort executive vice president and chief operating officer Pat Campbell said she heard about the video after the fact, and “Inside Edition” did not follow normal media protocols for filming on the mountain.
Russ Pecoraro, Vail Resorts’ spokesman, said the company is taking a “zero tolerance” approach to skiing or riding under the influence. The consequences of being caught smoking marijuana include the suspension of skiing and riding privileges. On the official Breckenridge Ski Resort Facebook page, the company responded to numerous comments during the past few days questioning the decision to tear down Leo’s.
“Ski Patrol has worked over the past decade to take down smoke shacks as they’ve become more dangerous, or elicited more illegal activity. With the “Inside Edition” report, Leo’s was moved to the top of the list,” the resort wrote.
Bill Kight, USFS public affairs officer, said he was not previously aware of Leo’s, but he couldn’t say whether other Forest Service personnel knew about it. It was taken care of, he said, as soon as it was reported. A permit is needed to build any structure on Forest Service land, he said.
“Suppose someone went into a structure and got high, and collided into a child, who they killed or hurt,” he said. “The first question is if we knew about the structure, and if so, why didn’t we tear it down. It’s a safety and liability issue.”
John Hall, a former full-time resident of Breckenridge now living in Golden, said he does not smoke but has previously stopped into Leo’s with friends to rest or eat a snack.
“This whole thing was disastrous from the start, and it is very upsetting to know the consequences of opportunistic and tabloid journalism,” he said. “Blaming and punishing everyone else for those idiots in the video is like categorizing your entire family over its least-desirable member. It was too quick a move.”
Pecoraro said he was “not in the loop” as to how long Breckenridge might have known about certain structures.
“There is an unbalanced perception of what is, and what is not, permissible in Colorado and at resorts,” he said. “We are taking a proactive stance.”
Hall said he believes the method of destruction for Leo’s was an “intimidation tactic” that left him questioning the impact to the environment and to wildlife, as well as the fact that debris was left in the forest.
“This has really made me consider, for once in years, to not obtain my Epic Pass next season,” he said. “The attitude of Vail Resorts is one that has scoffed at the local population, and I don’t think this violent act was the end of their actions.”
Finding these structures is common occurrence, Pecoraro said. “It’s our responsibility as stewards of that land to work with the Forest Service to identify and dispose of those illegal structures.”
Some can be disassembled by hand, he said, while in other cases, such as the high-profile Leo’s, explosives have to be used. “I don’t know the specifics of that decision; it’s based on the safety of everyone involved,” he said.
“We don’t want to provide a place to get higher and higher and then go out on the slopes,” Kight said. “Forest Service land is public land, but if we let everybody do what they wanted to do it would be total chaos. There’s a lot we’d rather be doing than chasing people who don’t want to obey the law.”
Pecoraro said Vail Resorts has destroyed “several” of the structures in the past week, and while it is a common occurrence, he did not reveal how many had been found or destroyed so far this season, or in the past.
When asked about the process for removing or destroying one of the structures, Kight said the ski patrol provides assistance. When the Summit Daily News asked to speak with Breckenridge Ski Patrol for clarification, Pecoraro responded: “I’ve provided you with our company’s position and there’s not a lot patrol would add at this point. … From our perspective, the story is about what we’re doing globally at our resorts to protect the rights and preserve the fun for all our guests and employees. It’s not about the physical act of actually finding or taking down the structures. ... Our mountain operations personnel consult with the Forest Service on the most appropriate methods to remove the structures based on location, materials, size, the safety of guests and the safety of the people bringing the structure down.”
Scott Fitzwilliams, forest supervisor for the White River National Forest, said in a prepared statement that marijuana is prohibited at all 22 ski areas in Colorado that operate on national forest lands.
“You can be cited and fined for marijuana use and possession on national forests,” he said. “I will also add that it is against the law for anyone to build any structures on national forest system lands without a permit.”
Pecoraro said the company is not making judgments, but wants all guests to know the rules so they do not lose their pass privileges or get cited by law enforcement.
When asked if Vail Resorts had any other proof besides the “Inside Edition” video that the structures were being used to smoke marijuana, Pecoraro said: “Whether we actually saw people smoking marijuana in the structures or not is relevant, but kind of irrelevant, because those are illegal structures.
“If we didn’t have direct proof of that, the ‘Inside Edition’ story did provide some proof,” he said. “The long and short of it is, we don’t need a reason because it’s an illegal structure on the land and that’s within our rights.”
Pecoraro said this is not new practice, and wants to make it clear what is permissible at the resorts.
“It’s this game; we knock one down and people go out and put up another,” he said. “Ski patrol in routine sweeps can find these places, and we hear rumblings here and there. There’s not a task force or investigative unit tracking this. We have to be made aware.”
Jordan Schultz, coordinator of the Summit County Healthy Futures Initiative, said: “It’s pretty clear to us, as far as legality, there’s really no gray area in Amendment 64 as far as it being legal (in public). We support the ski resort keeping it safe, family friendly, and following those federal land statutes about not using marijuana.”
The Healthy Futures group works on a number of strategies to help reduce substance use among youths and to strengthen community agencies to work together.
Schultz said she watched the Inside Edition video, and said: “My first thought was, you are up here in Breck in Summit County on a beautiful day, you’re doing it wrong. These people stop and get high, and they are missing the point of getting out and doing something amazing that gives you a natural high.”
“This whole thing was disastrous from the start, and it is very upsetting to know the consequences of opportunistic and tabloid journalism. Blaming and punishing everyone else for those idiots in the video is like categorizing your entire family over its least-desirable member. It was too quick a move.”
Former resident of Breckenridge