wonder what the availability of that type of land will be in the future as well as your transport needs when gas gets to $9 or $10 a gallon which it is foreseeable.
Well, if gas got to 9 or 10 a gallon that type of land would be VERY available as everyone would be trying to unload it. However, I think there's about as much of a chance gas gets that high as there is that it craters to 9 or 10 cents a gallon. That's a 250% increase from an already record-high price, where demand destruction is in full swing except for countries with subsidies (and, incidentally, gas prices have increased nowhere near as much as oil precisely because of this demand destruction). Either the countries subsidizing their consumers would run currency-crushing deficits continuing to do so, or they'd end the subsidy, and gas demand would collapse in those countries as well. And, besides, as Samuelson just reminded W-Post readers in an editorial a week or so ago: this isn't just a gas crisis we're facing. It's all commodities (steel, gold, wheat, aluminum, etc etc). He had a nice argument why this was happening, hadn't heard it before so I'm not sure what to make of it, but anyway...
Can a ski area make it only on its own merits as a ski area? On purely economic grounds, it seems very hard to do.
Sure, why not. You already cited MRG, they've got a model. I can name at least four in Colorado alone that survive on that model, five actually (Wolf Creek, Monarch, Cooper, Loveland, A-Basin), at least three in New Mexico, all but two or three in Montana, ditto for Wyoming... heck even around Lake Tahoe there's Alpine Meadows, Homewood, and Mount Rose.
The success of real estate in sustaining ski resorts is directly proportional to a resorts' capitalization and hence it's ability to weather downturns like they're facing right now (or to do like Intrawest did and try to sell off undercapitalized products years ago). Real estate- particularly second home real estate- is a higher risk product, it's good when it booms and sucks air when it busts. If you don't have the capital to cover a market bust your whole ski area will go up in smoke. Ski areas that can't afford- or choose not to make investments in- things like top-of-the-line grooming and snowmaking and high-speed lifts (or make these investments at far lower rates than industry standards) are the perfect example of resorts that shouldn't be getting into the real estate business.
Now, that also makes them ripe purchasing targets because undercapitalization=underperformance in the long run. A cash heavy investor can come in and buy these resorts for dimes on the dollar, basically, if said investor has $100 million to lay into a resort village. I think that's why these daytripper ski hills get gobbled up- I think one up by Missoula is going through this right now (Lolo).
Do the models work? To the extent that their financial situation is such that it makes more sense from a risk perspective to stay small and undeveloped, yes. Does that make them ripe targets for acquisition? If they have lease rights to land around them (or outright ownership), yes. It's a double-edged sword. I'm happy they're still around though.