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Between rocks and hard times

June Lake's driest winter in 16 years halts skiing and the local economy.

February 12, 2007|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

JUNE LAKE, CALIF. — Nobody has strung a badminton net across the whisper-quiet main drag here, but some residents joke that they might as well do just that.

Usually at this time of year, thousands of skiers follow a winding road to the June Mountain ski area two miles out of town. But with the region suffering its driest winter in at least 16 years, a car rolls through only every few minutes -- usually a local on an errand.

Snow-starved June Mountain shut down nearly two weeks ago after a season that lasted all of 23 days. The closure threw 175 seasonal employees out of work and left local businesses desperate to hang on until the fishing crowd jams the streets this summer.

Nobody knows whether the cause is global warming or the meteorological glitch of a high-pressure area hanging on, like a deranged houseguest, for months.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 14, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
June Lake: A photo caption in Monday's Section A with an article about lack of snow in the June Lake area wrongly identified a rocky slope as June Mountain; the photo was taken near June Lake, but it did not show June Mountain.

In any case, the numbers are bleak, with the eastern Sierra receiving only 31% of its normal snowfall and California as a whole getting just 40%. Mammoth, just 20 miles south, has more snow-making capability and an elevation 500 to 1,000 feet higher than June's.

"As far as precipitation goes, it's been the driest year since 1991," said Frank Gehrke, the specialist who measures snow for the state Department of Water Resources.

Even after a storm blanketed the mountain this weekend, the ski area's top executives said the layoffs made reopening highly unlikely.

Last week, rocks and brush poked up through a hard frosting of old snow. Known for its gentle inclines and family-friendly slopes, the mountain was turned treacherous by snags that could topple even experienced skiers, said Carl Williams, the area's general manager.

"Closing it was the most gut-wrenching decision of my career," he said. "I've been part of the community, and I know how fragile the economy is. I knew the major impact that this would have."

The immediate problems are hard to miss on a stroll past the old brick buildings and small frame houses of June Lake's downtown.

At the June Lake General Store, where flannel shirts and snow shovels shared dimly lighted display space with the soup and cereal, owner Eric Drell spoke of "an obligation" to keep the town's only grocery open.

"We're cutting back on perishables," Drell said as his clerk rang up a couple of beers on credit for a local resident. "But we'll always have milk, we'll always have bread and we'll always have canned goods. This town has always been a resilient place, and we'll bounce back this summer."

At Cathy's Candy next door, chocolate roses for Valentine's Day lay stacked on a counter. But by midafternoon, owner Cathy Scribner had seen just one customer.

"She was a friend of mine," said Scribner, who recently expanded her shop and took on an additional $500 in monthly rent.

At the June Lake Motel and Cabins, Cheri and Dale Bromberger said they had laid off their three maids and a part-time desk clerk. Only one of their 32 rooms was occupied.

"Once the mountain closed, all of our guests canceled," said Cheri Bromberger, a former president of the local Chamber of Commerce. "It just shut the town right down."

June Lake does most of its business in the summer, when fishermen and hikers converge on the idyllic mountain landscape. Still, winter revenues are crucial, said John Logue, owner of Ernie's Tackle and Ski Shop. Warming himself by a gas stove, he said his business had plummeted 80% and that he might have to lay off his son. But, like many other residents, he had no quarrel with the shutdown.

"There was just no choice," he said, pointing out that every one of the skis and snowboards he rented on the area's final weekend came back gouged and pitted by rocks.

Despite the general acceptance that June Mountain had to close, suspicion of its corporate parent runs deep. Dave McCoy, a beloved ski pioneer, started Mammoth with a single rope tow in 1955 and acquired June in 1986. Two years ago, he sold the controlling interest in his company to Starwood Capital Group, a private investment firm based in New York. A company called Intrawest and Mammoth Chief Executive Rusty Gregory also are part-owners.

Even before the papers were signed, some residents worried that the deal would transform Mammoth and June into over-developed playgrounds catering to an upscale clientele. Last winter, suspicion only deepened when Gregory said June would be closed three days a week in the 2006-07 season.

In April, he relented, saying that residents convinced him how severely the town would have suffered. Still, he kept alive the possibility that June Mountain would have to close for good if the community didn't get behind plans to build as many as 1,000 hotel and housing units on 90 acres across from the ski area.

Without virtually tripling the lodging in June Lake, the area -- with limited snow-making capacity and a relatively low elevation -- would continue to be a marginal operation, he warned. "Failure," he told residents, "is nipping at our heels very closely."

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