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Skiing's hard-to-pin-down popularity

Spring came early this year - like in January in the East. So it's a fitting time to ask whether skiing is on the rise or on the wane. Will more people or less enjoy winter and snow?

Weather is one major factor, and weather during the past six or seven years has not been very cooperative, certainly not in the East. ''Three bad snow years out of four is impossible,'' says the editor of a cross-country ski magazine. He is convinced there is burgeoning demand for the sport of cross-country skiing in the United States. But on-again, off-again snow is a sure way to kill enthusiasm , not to mention much skiing.

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Last season was a good snow year everywhere, and this past fall ski shops generally were doing a brisk business, considering the recession. ''People want to ski'' is a generally accepted axiom in the ski industry that seemed truer than ever at the start of the winter.

I even rode the lift at Copper Mountain, Colo., with a laid-off Minnesota steel worker who had driven 20-plus hours for four days' skiing before returning to look for work. Whether there are 3 to 6 million or 13 to 15 million US skiers (depending on who is counting and how), a lot of them obviously want to enjoy winter, given half a chance.

But uncooperative weather, escalating prices, and finally the recession have taken their toll. In 1981 the Ski Business magazine trade show issue was 260 pages; in 1982 210 pages; in 1983 190 pages. It will probably take a combination of factors to make the figures grow once again: decent snow, sensible prices that are not geared primarily for condominium buyers. These are critical. So is making winter fun more visible and accessible to more people.

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