Gregory: 'Irresponsible of me to have not faced facts sooner'

Rusty Gregory knows people are not happy with him for closing June Mountain.

In the end, facing a loss of an average of $1.5 million a year, that wasn’t enough to stop him.

“Personally, I’m incredibly disappointed as well,” he said. ” I realize that the people in June are shocked and very disappointed, and angry with me. But the idea of subsidizing June without a view of an end result is not sustainable.”

He also said skier visits have gone from an average of 80,000 per season to 45,000 last season.

And, he said that another criticism—that the decision was “abrupt”— is not altogether true.
“In normal circumstances, we could avoid facing the issue, and it was probably irresponsible of me to have not faced the facts sooner,” he said. “But the fact is, we’ve had a long dialogue with the community about the viability of June Mountain, and we felt this was an appropriate time, at the beginning of summer.

“From our perspective, June is not going to find a sustainable business in the short term,” he said. “In the long term, we’ll see. There is a better way. There’s still a reason to believe that June can be a part of a destination resort. With air service, we’re looking for people to come up for more than just a long weekend. For the people who book a four-to-five-day stay, June offers a nice alternative. But with the economy—with the state and with the Town of Mammoth Lakes—it is a constant and stark financial reminder that we just can’t keep going this way.”

Although Gregory didn’t mention it directly, June Lake residents are well aware that June Mountain faces another challenge that could make a ski area less viable over time—as much as 30 percent of the mountain is now covered in red, dead, bark-beetle-killed trees. The infestation, which is spreading every year, is both dangerous and unattractive, adding another negative to the whole scenario.

MMSA is not the only player in this game
Mammoth Mountain is not the only player when it comes to whether June Mountain opens again.
It might not even be the most critical player.

With all the talk about other parties buying June Mountain (see accompanying story on p.1), with the emerging protests, the bottom line is June Mountain is built on land that does not belong to any single person. Every citizen in the country owns it. It is not private land, but public land.

The only thing MMSA owns is the developed properties on the mountain.

The ski area was built before WWII on United States Forest Service Inyo National Forest land. Today, MMSA holds what is known as a “special use permit” that allows it to operate a ski area on federal land. Gregory signed it on Jan. 2, 2006, and it is good for 50 years.

The catch is that the permit is valid only if MMSA operates the ski area under the criteria and conditions established by the Forest Service.

The permit is 16 pages and makes clear that in the end, what the Inyo National Forest giveth, the Inyo National forest can taketh away.

“This use (as a ski area) shall normally be exercised at least 365 days a year or season,” the permit reads. “Failure of the holder to exercise this minimum use may result in termination…”

The permit further reads: “The Forest Service may suspend or revoke this permit in whole or part” for several reasons, including “failure of the holder to exercise the privileges granted by this permit,” amidst other reasons.

Nancy Upham, the public information officer for the forest, said Thursday that every permit is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. That means sitting down and talking to Gregory and/or other MMSA representatives.

“We need to discuss this with them, understand their plans and know that they fully understand that their permitted use could be terminated,” she said, adding that the meeting would probably not occur until the week of July 9, since both Gregory and the forest’s supervisor, Ed Armenta, are out of the area until that week. 

But closing the ski area temporarily does not trigger a specific penalty, and, there are no definite deadlines associated with closing the ski area, she said.

“There is nothing that says that they cannot keep the permit even though they are not operating, except for the clause [referenced above],” she said. “This is what we plan to have full discussions with them about.”

She said that the forest will want to immediately assure several conditions are met, including “a business plan that addresses timelines, status check-ins, or other relevant information as determined by the forest supervisor.”

She also said that the ski area’s insurance must “remain valid up to the amount identified in their special use permit,” that “security/patrol procedures are in place for both winter and summer,” and that “legal access to the area is in place.”

When asked if the public would have an opportunity to be involved in the process, she said, “In light of the amount of public interest in this, we will express to MMSA officials that we would like their planning process to be transparent and that we would expect them to take the lead on this. Mono County has definitely expressed interest, but it would be premature for us to answer this question at this time.”

If MMSA does want to sell its improvements, the forest service would be deeply involved in that process, she said. 

“Appropriate documentation would have to be submitted to the forest service regarding the sale and application for a new ski area permit and the forest service would have to make the determination that a new permittee has both the financial and technical ability to hold the permit,” she said.

(Times News Editor George Shirk contributed to this report)