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Another ski area joins the ghosts

Article by Allen Best

Recreation Industry – August 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

Cuchara Ski Area arrived on the coattails of Colorado’s great boom in downhill skiing. That was in 1981-82, the finale of an era when ski areas had routinely posted gains of 10 and even 20 percent. Only droughts seemed to interrupt the steep curve, and most ski areas set out to overcome those by investing heavily in snowmaking equipment.

But those startling gains had already begun to level off nationally. More modest increases continued in Colorado, but even here the ski industry began to contract several years ago. Particularly hard hit have been those resorts, such as Cuchara, that are small, with somewhat marginal snow conditions, and located a considerable distance from major population centers.

Now, faced with a proposal to restart the oft-struggling Cuchara, the U.S. Forest Service is saying no. Such flat-out denials from the Forest Service to the ski industry have been rare, almost non-existent. But the reasoning behind this decision reflects a view of how Colorado may develop during the next two decades.

Cuchara’s story is checkered. Funded by a $22 million loan and created by local entrepreneurs and Texas developers, the ski area was opened as Panadero. Situated on the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo Range, it is within the San Isabel National Forest, about an hour’s drive southwest of Pueblo.

This location did not serve Cuchara well. Little bed base is found nearby, discouraging use from Christian groups who favor Monarch. Location also favors Monarch in day use. Pueblo is close to Cuchara, but its population seems to have relatively few skiers, and Colorado Springs skiers seemed to prefer Monarch which is only a few miles farther, and has consistently better snow — an average 350 inches annually, compared to Cuchara’s estimated 250 inches.

Cuchara never hosted many skiers, just 20,000 on average over the 14 seasons. Frequent business troubles and occasional ownership transfers further confounded consistency. During the ’90s, Cuchara was closed as often as it was open.

Now, after reviewing a proposal to reopen Cuchara, the Forest Service says there is no need for the ski area, and the drain on government resources cannot be excused. Ski industry sources tell the agency that 70,000 skiers is the break-even point for ski areas, and Cuchara didn’t even hit half of that in its best year.

A needs assessment completed by the agency takes a somewhat bleak view of skiing growth, both nationally and in Colorado. Key points are:


*U.S. skier numbers have been flat for two decades even as the population grew 19 percent. Demographics suggest it will get worse.

*As of several years ago, 87 percent of skiers are non-Hispanic Caucasians. Coincidentally, 87 percent of U.S. skiers were aged 12 to 44. But, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, during the next 20 years there will be fewer people that fall into these demographic profiles upon which the ski industry has depended. Instead, the population will have a higher proportion of non-Caucasians, who typically have not skied very much.

*Weather trends do not favor skiing. The four warmest years on record have occurred in the 1990s. Snow cover on the North American continent has been shrinking during the past century. All this suggests shorter ski seasons and hence fewer skier visits.

*Looking at both demographics and weather, industry analysts project skier visits will decline 12 percent by the year 2010 — despite the last two years, in which there have been gains.


*Colorado’s ski industry has bucked the national trend, sustaining growth until the late 1990s, leaving the industry with a 2 percent annual average growth for the last two decades.

*There has been consolidation. Seven ski areas have closed. The last new ski area was Arrowhead, which opened in 1991 and has since been folded into Beaver Creek, itself the last major ski area to open. Meanwhile, Forest Service permits for three proposed ski areas — at Adams Rib near Eagle, Catamount near Steamboat, and at East Fork near Pagosa Springs — were terminated with the mutual consent of the permittees as a result of a failure to pursue development in a timely manner.

*Colorado has a higher proportion of destination or out-of-state skiers than the national average, but that market has declined. In their absence, Colorado ski areas have been aggressively bidding for Colorado’s resident population, which is clustered on the Front Range. The “buddy” season passes offered by ski areas along or near Interstate 70 go for $200 to $250. Some ski areas have offered four-ticket packages for as low as $20 a ticket.

*Small Front Range ski areas that did not offer such passes experienced an 8.4 percent decline in visits from Front Range skiers. Destination ski areas that didn’t offer passes experienced 6 percent declines. But those Front Range destination ski areas that did have buddy passes posted gains of 10 percent in Front Range skier visits.

*As a result of these trends, “most Colorado ski areas have seen an erosion of revenue/skier visit and have taken actions to reduce expenses and trim operating costs.” One of those ski areas experiencing “severe problems” is Crested Butte, while both Winter Park and Steamboat are restructuring.

Cuchara vs. Monarch

*Cuchara’s location severely hampers it. Snow is inconsistent until March and April, when temperatures are higher, creating “boom and bust” skiing conditions. Too, some slopes face east and southeast, catching the sun’s rays. High temperatures often preclude snowmaking even in the February-April period. In contrast, both Wolf Creek and Monarch have much more consistent snow.

*Cuchara has little bed base nearby.

*To become financially viable, the Forest Service estimates Cuchara must generate a minimum of 50,000 skier visits, and more probably 70,000. Cuchara has lost money in each of the last four of its operating seasons.

Allen Best, who has edited newspapers in several ski towns, can generally be found along the I-70 corridor between Glenwood Springs and Arvada.