LIKE the skier praying for more snow as he scrapes his way down the icy moguls and exposed granite of southern Oregon these days, the United States ski industry is going through a rough patch. Fickle weather and economic recession - ``the twin terrors,'' Ski magazine executive editor Steve Cohen calls them - are working against a sport that is both seasonal and expensive. A large chunk of the fun-minded baby-boom generation is staying at home with their own kids. Environmentalists are fighting the construction of new areas designed to woo potential skiers to pristine mountainsides as well as the expansion of some existing areas into year-round ``destination resorts.''
Over the past decade, this has added up to some sobering figures for the $7 billion ski business, according to industry sources. The number of ski areas has fallen from about 1,000 to less than 600, and about a third of those have been operating at a financial loss. The number of skiers (about 22 million) and annual ``skier outings'' (50 million) has remained essentially flat. Pre-tax return on investment has bumped along at well below 10 percent.
``Let's face it, the market is at best plateaued,'' says Mr. Cohen. ``The only way to get business is to steal it from someplace else.''
In some cases, foreign investors have bought up big-name US ski areas. Japanese firms now own Breckenridge and Steamboat Springs in Colorado and Stratton Mountain in Vermont. Kamori Kanko Company Ltd. has announced the acquisition of Heavenly Valley near Lake Tahoe.
But US ski operators are fighting the demographic and economic trends with a big-bucks promotional campaign. In return for $97 million in advertising, one marketing firm hired by the industry estimated, ski area operators could draw 3.5 million new skiers and persuade another 1.6 million to ski more often - a 29 percent increase in skier visits over five years that would generate $1.4 billion in revenues.
Packages including travel, accommodations, lift tickets, and lessons are being offered here and abroad (especially in Japan). Operators increasingly are installing expensive computer-automated snowmaking machines that adjust to temperature, humidity, and wind conditions. These can extend the ski season to five months (Thanksgiving to May Day), and allow skiing in the higher-elevation parts of relatively balmy states like Virginia and North Carolina.
``You don't have to have natural snow to have a good quality ski product,'' says Mary Jo Tarallo of the United Ski Industries Association.
Major resorts also are going for the all-season recreation and vacation trade. They're installing golf courses and tennis courts, blazing horseback riding trails, hauling mountain bikers and sightseers up on their lifts in summer, and also linking up with white-water outfitters. The Crested Butte area in Colorado runs a summer program in partnership with Field and Stream magazine, says Ms. Tarallo.
And despite the economic trends, investors are pushing ahead with new projects.
Plans for the Early Winters year-round resort in the Cascade mountains of north-central Washington State include a 1,170-acre village. The US Forest Service recently approved the Lake Catamount area, a 9,866-acre resort (including 3,756 homes and condominiums) in the Colorado Rockies that will accommodate twice as many skiers as Aspen. And approval was given last month for a new area on Mt. Shasta in northern California that will receive an estimated 350,000 visitors a year.
In the West, where most of the expansion is taking place, the valleys where new roads, housing, and amenities will be built typically are privately owned; slopes where the actual skiing will be done are on federally owned land, sometimes hard by protected wilderness areas. The runs and lifts themselves impact the environment, cutting into wildlife habitat and migration routes and using large amounts of drought-scarce water to make snow.
But, says National Wildlife Federation lawyer Thomas Lustig, ``most of the impact is not from ski areas, but secondary sources - automobiles, wood-burning fireplaces, the dogs people bring.'' There is also water pollution from sewage as well as fertilizers and pesticides (used on golf courses) which run off into streams. Wood smoke, auto exhaust, and dust from cinders and sand ground up on slippery roads add up to a pall over ski towns like Aspen and Telluride that sometimes rivals major cities.
``Those valleys just trap those pollutants,'' says Mr. Lustig.
The Catamount area in Colorado, according to a draft environmental impact statement, would destroy 140 acres of wetlands and displace deer, elk, and bear from several thousand acres of habitat.
The US Forest Service's mandate is to manage public lands for ``multiple use,'' and across much of the West there is a shift from extractive industries like logging and mining to recreation.
That's fine, say environmentalists, but federal agencies need to be more hard-nosed about granting permission to develop rather than approving just about every proposal by entrepreneurs whose main financial interest is in real estate. This is especially true, they argue, since there are not - nor are there projected to be - hordes of new skiers flocking to the slopes. Because of this, environmental groups are taking whatever legal procedures they can to stop - or at least modify - new ski development.
``Other national forest uses, such as mining or oil and gas leasing, provide a more palpable public benefit - strategic minerals or energy independence,'' says Lustig. ``By comparison, there seem to be limited public benefits in making profits for a real estate holding company, when there is ample existing opportunity for downhill skiing.''