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Big Scrap in Big Sky

posted: 09/15/2004

When moonlight basin opened its doors in 2003, skiers at neighboring Big Sky Resort knew they were onto something good. Positioned on two flanks of 11,166-foot Lone Mountain, the resorts had a sort of open-door policy: Big Sky skiers could drop into the Moonlight side of the peak and return by way of the Iron Horse lift; Moonlight skiers could hitch a ride on Big Sky's Challenger lift. Best of all, you could ski between the resorts with just one pass.
Then things got ugly. Last February, Big Sky's owner, Boyne USA Resorts, filed suit against Moonlight Basin in Montana's Fifth Judicial District Court. "The lawsuit," says Big Sky's general manager, Taylor Middleton, "is ultimately about trespass." Big Sky has brought forth 19 allegations that it considers tresspass violations. The most sensational accusation-juicy enough to make the front page of The Wall Street Journal-involves the positioning of Moonlight's Avalauncher, an avalanche-control gun that fires two-pound charges up to a mile. Big Sky contends that the Avalauncher, which is aimed at Lone Mountain's Headwater Bowl, could overshoot the Headwater ridge and endanger its work crews. Moonlight CEO Burt Mills insists that the Avalauncher is fixed by a "limiter" that restricts shots to hundreds of yards below the ridge. "We don't have an overshot problem," he says.
Why the petty squabbling? The real issue, say some locals, is real estate. Both resorts are sinking millions into vacation-home developments-which may be at the core of the dispute. "Real estate is getting in the way of a pure skiing experience," says Neil Hetherington, a part-time instructor at Big Sky. "It's childish."
Until the legal wrestling ends-something neither side expects to happen soon-skiers will need two passes to ski all of Lone Mountain. "We are competitors," says Big Sky's Middleton, "and we will compete."

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