|By Kiera Hay, Albuquerque Journal, N.M.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jun. 19, 2006 - SANTA FE, N.M. -- Statistics have confirmed what most New Mexicans and the state's ski-area operators already knew: The recent ski season was the worst in six years.
Ski New Mexico -- a trade organization for the skiing and snowboarding areas -- has calculated 416,617 skier visits to New Mexico resorts this past winter, a steep decline from the 954,181 visits the state recorded in 2004-05.
This is the lowest number of skier visits to the state since at least 1999-2000.
"I think obviously the lack of snow is the No. 1 factor that created the lack of skier days," said Gordon Briner, general manager of Taos Ski Valley and a member of Ski New Mexico's board of directors.
According to the National Weather Service in Albuquerque, annual precipitation for the state through April was just 46 percent of normal. It was 181 percent of normal in 2004-05.
Briner said another reason for the low numbers was snow fans who passed up New Mexico resorts to travel to Colorado, which had a wet winter.
Taos had 158,000 skier visits this year, about a 35 percent decrease from last year's total.
Briner credited the resort's strong snowmaking system with allowing Taos to operate at close to full strength but said skiers appeared to have been scared off by the dry weather.
"Our sense was that last year was clearly an unusual year, and an average year next year would put us in good shape," he said.
Ski Santa Fe also said they experienced a decline in business. The resort had 56,191 skier visits during 113 days of operation between Dec. 10 and April 2. At no point was the entire mountain open.
"It was one of those years that you hope you only have once in a lifetime," said Ski Santa Fe marketing department representative Candy Dejoia.
Dejoia said Ski Santa Fe can make snow for about half its mountain terrain, but water restrictions limit snowmaking.
Pajarito Mountain Ski Area near Los Alamos, which relies entirely on natural snow, wasn't able to open at all. That meant about 100 jobs, normally filled by the area's residents, went unfilled.
"We'll continue operation, but for a small ski area like us, it was a significant financial hole," manager Tom Long said.
Still, "our outlook here is positive. We've got a snowmaking plan under way." Pajarito's members recently voted to invest in snowmaking machines. Long said Parajito should be able to produce artificial snow by 2008 or 2009.
"I think it's kind of an immediate response to that (the dry 2005-06 season), but it's also looking at the growth of the mountain and what you want to do with that," Long said.
Angel Fire was just shy of 108,000 skier visits this year, according to its director of marketing, David Dekema. The ski area had 170,000 skier visits in 2004-2005.
"It's pretty much our worst season ever," Dekema said.
Dekema added that next year Angel Fire will be forced to invest money in snowmaking equipment instead of making new terrain and trails.
One ski area that didn't appear to suffer too much from the dry winter was Sipapu. Sipapu's 17,511 skier visits were about a 10 percent decline from its "best seasons," according to marketing manager Deborah Lake.
The small resort, located 22 miles southeast of Taos, "actually had a great season compared to the other resorts," Lake said. Sipapu operated on 125 days between Nov. 19 and April 9. Lake said that at isolated times, the ski area had all four of its chair lifts working.
"Overall, the snowfall was down a bit, but the turnout was great. All our festivities, our special events, the attendance was exceptional," Lake said.
Lack of snow prevented the Valles Caldera National Preserve near Los Alamos from opening its trails for crosscountry skiing.
Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski Area had just 951 skier visits, down 5,000 from the previous year. The ski area didn't open until Jan. 20, and lack of snow forced it to close on Feb. 27. A heavier than expected bout of precipitation in March allowed the area to re-open March 10-26.
"If it weren't for March, I don't know what I would have done. March saved the day," Enchanted Forest owner John Miller said.
Despite having experienced one of New Mexico's worst ski seasons in years, area operators are trying to be optimistic about next winter.
Several expressed hope that 2006-07 would turn out to be a banner season.
It's possible. In 1999-2000, a dry year for the state, Ski New Mexico reported only 645,550 skier visits. The following year, ski areas rebounded with 1,092,399 visits, a number that has yet to be topped.
"We're just hoping that next year is kinder to all of us with more snow," Dejoia said.
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Copyright (c) 2006, Albuquerque Journal, N.M.
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