The fickleness of Mother Nature and the ruthlessness of the free market is running "mom and pop" ski hills into oblivion.

Taylor Mountain, Bear Gulch, Hitt Mountain and Caribou are a few of the small ski hills that have closed in Idaho in the past 10 to 15 years, said Mary Reichman, general manager of Pebble Creek ski area and president of the Idaho Ski Area Association."The thing that has changed most is the expectations of service," Reichman said. "At this point, people are expecting snow grooming, gourmet food, snow making, the posher looking lodges. They are expecting a total resort vacation now."

During the 1982-83 ski season there were 735 ski areas in the United States. Ten years later, through some mergers and many closings, that number dropped to 529, said Stacy Gardner, spokesperson for the National Ski Association of America in Lakewood, Colo.

A trend toward "mega-resorts" is putting one-lift operations on ice and providing tough competition for midsized and smaller hills such as Grand Targhee and Pebble Creek.

"I don't think they stand a chance," said Lillian Ross, of the small ski hills. Ross is director of public relations for Ski the Summit, a marketing umbrella for a complex of four resorts in Colorado with 3.5 million skier visits last season.

In the ski industry, keeping up with the bigger operations means more than artificial snow and groomed runs.

"In the last six years, we have had one break-even season, one where we got ahead and the rest were struggle years," Reichman said.

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