PAGOSA SPRINGS, Colo. — The way Betty Feazel and Dan McCarthy joke with each other, you wouldn't guess they are on opposite sides of a struggle over a pristine mountain valley in the southern Colorado Rockies.
Feazel and McCarthy have known each other for years. Their families have gone to the Santa Fe Opera together. McCarthy, who lives in Illinois, stays at Feazel's ranch when he is in Colorado. When they are together, it is easy to see they enjoy each other's company.
"Nice guy," Feazel said when asked about McCarthy. "I'm very fond of him personally. I just disagree with his plans."
Battle Lines Drawn
Those plans form the battle lines between the developer and the ecologist: The developer wants this valley for a ski resort and the ecologist wants it the way it is.
McCarthy bought the valley along the East Fork of the San Juan River in 1970 after looking around the West for a place to build a year-round resort. After years of delays, caused mostly by government studies of potential wilderness areas, McCarthy got approval from the U.S. Forest Service last summer to build a 4,600-acre resort.
The "East Fork" resort needed Forest Service approval because its main attraction would be a large ski area on Quartz Ridge, which is on Forest Service land. The resort would also have a golf course along the valley floor.
Local Industry Collapses
On McCarthy's side are his partner, Balcor Corp., which is a subsidiary of American Express, and many area residents who see the resort as an economic savior. The main industry in Pagosa Springs, a community of 1,300, is timber, and for all practical purposes it has collapsed.
On the other side of the struggle are numerous environmental groups, including the National Wildlife Federation and local chapters of the Sierra Club and National Audubon Society. They are joined by Betty Feazel, whose ranch lies in the path of an access road to the resort.
Feazel, 71, is no stranger to controversy.
"I always seem to get churned up by my principles," said Feazel, who was embroiled in civil rights controversies as early as the 1940s and protested Vietnam in the '60s and '70s.
As she stood on a hill overlooking the valley below McCarthy's development site, the chain-smoking Feazel said she sympathizes with her friend but believes the environment needs protection. However, McCarthy believes just as strongly that his resort could enhance the environment.
"It's his own property, but I think there should be limits to the damage to the public interest that people who own property should be allowed to inflict," Feazel said.
No Personal Gain
"There isn't any money in this (opposition) for me. I'm not moved by personal gain. It's a matter of principle. The natural resources are being eaten alive by too much commodity removal, oil and gas exploration, mining, timbering, coal strip mines. These are national resources that belong to all the people of the United States. I'm against Forest Service policy wherever it is commodity-oriented."
The environmental groups oppose the resort because the area is home to the endangered peregrine falcon and perhaps to lynx and wolverine, as well as being wintering ground for elk and deer herds. Also, they argue, the ski area would be adjacent to the South San Juan Wilderness Area, potentially damaging that resource.
The Ute Mountain Indians, whose reservation is about 40 miles away, also are fighting the project because they say it would damage archeological sites.
McCarthy insists that his resort is compatible with the environment. He began his own environmental studies back in the 1970s, before they were required, and has done some enhancement work on the river bed in consultation with the Forest Service.
"I think East Fork has the capability to overcome all valid objections," he said. "It already has undergone intense scrutiny. I have a very sensitive feeling about and respect for environmental values, both wildlife and people values, and have had all the time. I know that if I'm in control these will be respected."
McCarthy admitted that his resort would result in "some degradation" of the environment. "But I think there will be a lot of enhancements, too," he said. "It would not be successful if it didn't improve lots of people's personal environments."
Tom Lustig, attorney for the National Wildlife Federation, believes East Fork is symbolic of many pending ski resort proposals nationwide. He hopes that, by stopping one, all the others might be stopped as well.
Lustig and other environmentalists are not so much concerned with the effects of the ski area itself, but rather with the impact of the development at the base of the mountain. The valley floor, and not the mountaintop, is the best habitat for most wildlife.