Fall Foliage - Always spectacular…

October 13, 2011

Dateline Sept 16th Lincoln, NH: Governor Lynch and State officials gather to publicly kick off the fall tourism season in the muddy wake of flood damage left by the Tropical Storm Irene. The travel and tourism officials announce an anticipated 7.8 million visitors to NH are expected to spend $1 billion over the 3-month fall season. The Governor highlights ambitious repairs to damaged highways and bridges were completed ahead of schedule before the fall foliage season so “our people and our visitors will be able to travel freely” across the White Mountain region. Obviously, changing leaves are big business.

Dateline October 6th Concord, NH: Tourism officials announce their annual Columbus Day Weekend forecast: the “busiest ever” in terms of total numbers of visitors and total spending. The report of the Institute for NH Studies forecasts 610,000 out-of-state visitors were expected to arrive for the three-day weekend spending an estimated $85 million, a four percent increase from last year. Columbus Day weekend is second only to the 4th of July and Labor Day in NH tourism dollars.

The same week, the Associated Press examined whether global climate change and warming temperatures might impact the timing and intensity of the changing autumn leaves in New England. Various scientists acknowledged possibilities and offered that the timing of “peak foliage” could be pushed back while citing conflicting evidence indicating any clear regional trends. Researchers pointed to annual fluctuations in both summer and autumn weather conditions making it difficult to discern trends.

Meanwhile in the forest, the answers remained elusive. I asked. The leaves offered no comment, just a few faint rustles. Maple leaves blushed at my questions. Nature doesn’t care that her colorful leaves are serious “cha-ching” to regional commerce. Weather fluctuations are business as usual each autumn.Some scientists had cautioned that heavy spring rains, dry summer conditions and extreme temperature fluctuations cause dramatic effects on foliage. Heavy rain last spring and Tropical Storm Irene created a regional spike in the incidence of an anthracnose fungus and black tar spot affecting the foliage of a superstar: some sugar maple leaves turned from summer green to pale yellow and the brown before dropping off earlier than usual. Meanwhile the birches, beech, ash, oaks and other hardwoods remained relatively green in the southern half of the state.

The news grew more upbeat as the weekend weather forecast predicted sunshine with record-breaking warmth statewide. By Friday, highways were jammed with tourists destined for weekend scenic drives, foliage trains or motorcycle, boat, bicycle and hiking tours. Regional fall-themed attractions ranged from harvest festivals, agricultural fairs and pick-your-own apples or pumpkins to corn mazes and haunted hayrides.

When the sun set Monday, a near-full moon hung over the White Mountainsarrayed in peak fall colors and the economic news was huge. Businesses throughout the northern half of the state reported the perfect weather and stunning foliage made the holiday weekend their best on record with retail businesses, attractions and lodging reporting record-breaking numbers. “Busiest in years” and “best we have ever had” were common refrains. Even Seacoast beaches were packed for the three-day-weekend without so much as a fig leaf in sight. After the fact, a tourism insider sniffed how one botany professor at a prestigious New Englandinstitution gave a dire prediction for our autumn foliage display: “might be the worst ever this year.” Compared to what? Compared to other states, that’s simply impossible. The reality is the price of gas, the regional economy and - most importantly - the Columbus Day weekend weather forecast are the real factors influencing the success of foliage season – not whether leaves will change on time or if it will “peak” at Columbus Day weekend.

Foliage isn’t really a quantity, it’s a quality. Like the elusive instant of alleged “peak foliage” which might arrive – unfortunately - in the middle of night, foliage is more of a mindset. Leaf colors are a spiritual quality not an economic quantity… unless the leaf peeper season is measured solely in green.

Each year, I invariably contribute to the whole milieu of expert opinions about the quality of the fall foliage. If I’m lucky, this allows me to get out of my office to conduct a little “research.” During rainy years, I’m fortunate to know creative phrases like “it will be a rare and special pastel year.”

Truth is: the leaves always change – the intensity of the colors and the timing of that alleged “peak” are really insignificant. When asked how I think the foliage will be, I give more or less the same answer: “the foliage will be absolutely spectacular this year

I’ve never once been wrong. Just look outside! 

Spectacular again.