This is the time of year when Vail Resorts would normally be thrilled to have images of a crackling fire in a cozy ski lodge appearing in national magazines.
But when the flames are consuming the lodge, allegedly the work of eco-terrorist arsonists four years ago, ski company officials get a sick feeling in the pits of their stomachs.
"When I first saw (the ad), it took my breath away," says Vail Chief Operating Officer Bill Jensen. "I thought, 'What's this? Oh my God.' "
The ad has appeared in Newsweek and may soon run in U.S. News & World Report and Time. It was paid for by the Center for Consumer Freedom in Washington, D.C., a conservative, pro-industry lobbying organization.
It shows Two Elk Lodge burning to the ground on Oct. 19, 1998, when members of the shadowy Earth Liberation Front allegedly set seven fires on Vail Mountain, causing $12 million in damage - thought to be the most costly act of eco-terrorism on U.S. soil.
The photo, snapped by Vail firefighter Mark Mobley, has become emblematic of radical environmentalism.
The ad targets People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which the Center for Conservative Freedom says supports the Earth Liberation Front and its radical tactics. It quotes PETA officials sympathetically supporting ELF's agenda, and asks: "PETA: As warm and cuddly as you thought?"
PETA is a nonprofit group that uses nonviolent methods to oppose human consumption and exploitation of animals.
PETA lawyer Jeff Kerr denies any connection to ELF or the Vail fires, but refuses to condemn the attacks.
"We don't take a position," Kerr says of ELF. "Their tactics are their tactics. PETA is a nonviolent, peaceful social change group, and it's not for us to condemn or advocate on behalf of anyone else."
The CCF alleges, and provides documented proof, that PETA has provided financial support to ELF, which claims to have set the Vail fires to protest the ski company's Blue Sky Basin expansion. The project resulted in clear-cutting of trees in an area widely believed to be prime habitat for the endangered Canada lynx.
Vail is caught in the middle of the controversial ad blitz. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Colorado ski industry has been marketing itself as a secure haven for vacationers seeking an escape from big cities.
"That's where (the ad is) really insidious on their part," Kerr said. "The timing of these ads clearly is playing on the fears of people in the wake of Sept. 11, and that is the height of inappropriateness."
No one was injured or killed in the Vail fires, and four years later, no arrests have been made.