Snow has come early to Kratka Ridge in the San Gabriel Mountains this year. Yet Ray Hensley worries that even November snows and a bountifully white winter may not be sufficient to sustain his ski facility, one of the smallest in the country.
For the last eight years, most of them drought-stricken with sparse snowfall, Hensley and the U.S. Forest Service have worked on a snow-making proposal.
But he complains that the project is moving at glacial speed through the federal bureaucracy.
And the latest roadblock has popped up in the form of a five-inch frog, the mountain yellow-legged, that some scientists say should be listed as an endangered species. After all these years of research on making snow, Hensley said, it was only in the last few months that the frog has been offered as a reason to kill the plan.
Hensley, 42, who skied his way through college as an NCAA All-American and skied around the world as a pro, says his facility may soon need to be listed as an endangered species as well. Officials from the Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say he can't draw water from a stream which is home to one of Southern California's last remaining populations of the mountain yellow-legged frog.
Without snow-making, he said, Kratka Ridge cannot compete. It opens an average of only 60 days a season, less than half the number possible with manufactured snow. "We didn't open a single day" during a drought year eight years ago, he said.
"The Forest Service has got to decide: Either make the snow-making happen or we might as well shut down," said Hensley, who grew up at the facility once managed by his father, Edward Hensley. The elder Hensley is now the majority stockholder among the 10 who own the ski area concession, Angeles Crest Winter Development Corp.
Michael J. Rogers, supervisor of the Angeles National Forest, said, "I can understand the frustration of the ski area operator. It seems like we've had one obstacle after another."
To survive, Rogers said, the facility needs to ensure that it will have a certain level of attendance. Snow-making, he said, can provide that assurance. But he says Hensley can find other ways to make snow.
Kratka Ridge is one of half a dozen downhill ski locations that have been developed in the forest in the last century. Some of them make snow. Only Kratka Ridge has to worry about frogs.
As the Angeles National Forest nears the end of its centennial year, the debate over recreational needs versus environmental ones reflects some of the challenges faced by the "urban forest," hard against a metropolitan area that at times threatens to overwhelm the wilderness.
Still, Kratka Ridge--perched above the Angeles Crest Highway about a 40-mile drive north from La Canada Flintridge--seems somewhat untouched by the 1990s. To visit it is to step back in time.
At Kratka, there are no gondolas, no rapid-fire chairlifts, no fancy apres-ski bars, condos or hotels. Instead, there is just one rope tow and two simple chairlifts. A few batten-board buildings house a tiny lift-ticket booth, a simple restaurant and caretaker's quarters. And there's an outdoor stone fireplace surrounded by picnic tables made from the hand-hewn timber of a tree that fell decades ago on the mountain.
At elevations ranging from 6,800 feet to 7,500 feet above sea level, 13 runs are spread out over 85 acres of rugged public land, forested by incense cedar, white fir, sugar pine and Jeffrey pine.
The 1950s and 1960s were the ski area's boom time. Although improvements have been made, Hensley said the facility now is lucky to attract 600 skiers on a good day and, even then, there is room to accommodate 200 more.
Hensley was trained as a geologist, but the ski area is his passion and it fuels his desire to have the snow-making succeed. He and his wife, Adrian, with the help of four other year-round employees, oversee five Angeles camping areas and the ski facility, all located not far from where the couple lives in the forest at Chilao.
In general, Rogers said, Hensley's plan to make snow at Kratka Ridge "makes a lot of sense" because the water for the snow would be taken from the local watershed and then be recycled when the snow melts.
The proposal calls for renovation of a dam on Little Rock Creek and for restoration of a pipeline that had been used for decades to supply water for an encampment of highway workers who lived there.
Pumping from the creek into two huge water-holding tanks, Hensley said, would occur only during rainstorms.
He is bitter that the issue of the frog just arose within the last year. When the snow-making idea first came up eight years ago, Hensley said, he told Forest Service officials the frog would have to be considered. No one pursued the subject until this year, after concerns for the frog were raised by federal biologists for the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, which made an environmental review of the proposal.
As a boy, Hensley attended a one-room school near Kratka and at recess he would go to the creek to play with the mountain yellow-leggeds. "It's a beautiful frog. It's been in my life forever. I'm ready to help the frog out. The Forest Service isn't. They just want the problem to go away."
Acknowledging some delays in reacting to the frog issue, Forest Service officials say they now are very concerned. The dam renovation, Rogers said, would destroy vegetation along the stream bed where the 15 or so frogs live. Such riparian areas are important, Rogers said, because they are "the glue that holds everything together" in the 1,000-square-mile forest.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials, Rogers said, "have made it very clear they won't entertain" the idea of piping water from the frog habitat.
A letter in September from the fish and wildlife agency to Angeles officials said that "the proposal will result in significant adverse impact" to mountain yellow-leggeds. Habitat, the letter said, would be altered and so would the flow of the stream.
But Mark Jennings, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who has been assessing the status of amphibians and reptiles in the Angeles National Forest, said: "I always feel there is room for negotiation."
Although Jennings is pushing for the mountain yellow-legged to be granted legal status as threatened or endangered, he said he "thought at least people could sit down and talk about" how to resolve the controversy.
"If the resort could modify the pipeline to take water further downstream, then I felt that would not bother the frog," he said.
Regardless, Jennings said, some protection must be afforded the frog. Among other things, he suggests the rerouting of a trail used by hikers and rock climbers who visit a popular climbing spot below Mt. Williamson. At present, he said, the trail traverses perilously close to the where the frogs live and also affords easy access to people often careless around the amphibians.
From the Forest Service viewpoint, another snow-making plan needs to be pursued. "The only viable alternative is to develop a water supply through wells," Rogers said.
Hensley said that to adequately deal with that plan would cost more money. The Kratka Ridge facility, he added, already has spent $150,000 on consultants and studies and has no more money to devote to it.
The Forest Service should take the lead, he said.
But Rogers of the Forest Service said it's up to the ski facility and that Hensley needs to realize that for the last decade the budget of the Angeles has been severely restricted. The flush days are gone, he said, adding that "we don't have the time or the people" to pursue it.
The Forest Service, Rogers said, is not singling out Kratka Ridge. "We have ski operators in Southern California that have spent $1 million on environmental studies for snow-making," he said, only to see the plans shot down because of environmental problems.
But to Hensley, one of his greatest frustrations at not being able to make snow is that Kratka's protected, north-facing slopes "hold snow better than any other ski area in Southern California." And right now, he said, that means he is like a farmer who has planted a crop and can do nothing more than pray for rain--or, in his case, snow.