Scarce snow early in the winter and a troubled economy made for a less-than-stellar season at the Mount Ashland ski area.

Scarce snow early in the winter and a troubled economy made for a less-than-stellar season at the Mount Ashland ski area.

After a busy final weekend under sunny skies April 21-22, the visitor count was down 15 percent from last winter's tally of 91,022, general manager Kim Clark said Thursday. A precise number of visits for the season was not available.

"This has been a challenging year," he said.

The ski area opened Dec. 20, just in time for schools' Christmas holidays, but thin snow at the summit of the 7,500 foot mountain kept skiers and snowboarders off some of the most popular runs until nearly February. Just 14 inches of snow fell for the month of January — less than one good storm might dump in a day.

Twenty days of sunshine for the month prompted Mount Ashland workers to call the first month of 2009 "June-uary," Clark recalled.

Snow returned in February and March, but never in the depths that came the previous winter, when 75 inches fell during the first seven days of January 2008.

Clark said financial details on the season won't be complete until the end of the fiscal year in June. As a nonprofit corporation, the ski area is not held to the same rules of financial disclosure as government entities.

He said the ski area wants to expand its presence as a nonprofit community service organization and draw more financial support from donors. As part of that process, the ski area hired Vanya Carlson as development director, and has begun developing strategies for finding support.

He said the ski area plans to operate five days a week next season to cut expenses, and the most likely closure days will be Tuesday and Wednesday, when attendance traditionally has been low.

"Like everybody else, we're tightening our belt," he said. "We've eliminated a couple of job positions and rearranged those duties."

Mount Ashland cut its number of open days from seven to six in 2007, after first proposing to be open only five days. Ski area officials eventually opted to close only on Tuesdays after an outcry from skiers.

The off-season crew has been trimmed to just eight full-time people and three part-timers, Clark said, and some of the full-time staff will likely be laid off for four months during the summer.

"We're watching every nickel and dime we spend," he said, noting that he'll pay for his trip next week to the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association annual meeting in Leavenworth, Wash., out of his own pocket.

"No one in the company is traveling on the company's dime this year," Clark said.

With money scarce, skiers and snowboarders shouldn't expect anything new on the mountain next winter.

"We won't be moving ahead on anything new," Clark said. "We'll be playing it safe and not taking on any debt."

There's likely to be little progress on the ski area's long-sought expansion project, which is now back at the U.S. Forest Service. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the final environmental impact statement back to correct inadequacies about whether the expansion would compromise habitat for the Pacific fisher. There were also problems with administrative procedures for classifying some forest lands, and identifying landslide hazard zones.

"We can't do anything on the ground," Clark said, until those issues are finally resolved.

The Forest Service intends to finish the supplemental environmental review by the end of calendar 2009, said Steve Johnson, of the Forest Service's Siskiyou Mountains Ranger District.

"A lot of other projects have come up," Johnson said, including administering federal stimulus money. "They've delayed us from getting back to (the ski area)."

The new review process will include preparing a final supplemental environmental impact statement, which itself could be challenged in court, Johnson said.

Clark said the ski area's spring pass sale, which reduced prices from last season and offered free financing over five months, has been well-received. He said pass sales are about 25 percent ahead of last year, but he declined to share actual numbers.

The preseason sale continued through the end of April.

Clark said the economic slump works against the ski area in some ways, but may help it in others. For some people, skiing and snowboarding is a luxury they can't afford, but others may come to Mount Ashland rather than make an expensive trip to Colorado or Utah.

"When things get tough, people still need a break from their day-to-day activities," he said, "but they tend to spend their recreation dollars closer to home."

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail:bkettler@mailtribune.com