Drought may shorten Great Lakes fall tourism

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Photo: Ohio Department of Natural Resources

A drought-shortened color season may blunt the impact of  Great Lakes fall tourism.

Stress induced by the dry summer may have leaves starting to fall a week or so earlier than normal, said Bert Cregg, a professor at Michigan State University’s Department of Forestry.

“I would say this past week and the weekend coming up are going to be the peak [in color],” he said referring to Michigan.

The truncated season has some tourism officials concerned.

The fall color attracts a lot of visitors and money to the state, said George Zimmermann, vice president for Travel Michigan, a public-private partnership that encourages tourism. It is featured in the state’s promotional advertisements.

“Certainly, a shorter season would not be something we would prefer,” he said.

But Zimmermann expects hotels and restaurants that cater to fall tourists to take it in stride.

“[It] might have some modest impact, but we would still expect robust fall travel,” Zimmermann said, noting that seasonal activities like outdoor recreation and going to wineries and farmer’s markets aren’t necessarily dependent on the leaf color.

Business owners in other states agreed.

“The fall color [season] is definitely a benefit, but I don’t believe it being shorter will be a detriment to what we do,” said Jason Becker, corporate officer at Fashion Farm in Ligonier, Ind. The farm’s Pumpkin Fantasyland festival runs through Oct. 31 and draws an average of 15,000 visitors a year.

In general, the dry months mean stress-induced, earlier leaf fall, but the arrival of color also depends on location and local weather, Cregg said.

Leaves are the main way trees lose water so losing them earlier defends them from drought, Cregg said. It is a way of shutting down until conditions are more favorable.

Vibrancy of the leaf color is also affected by the drought.

“Most research indicates that the degree of ‘redness’ in maples is mostly related to nutrient concentrations in the leaves,” said Cregg. “Drought can promote earlier color or, if the drought is severe, may shorten the display due to early leaf fall.”

And fall color isn’t the same everywhere.

“Michigan is big enough that it doesn’t all arrive at the same time, everywhere,” Zimmermann said. “It’s always moving from north to south.”

One area where the weather has boosted fall color is in Minocqua, Wis.

Color is expected to remain vibrant  because of the recent rains in northern Wisconsin, said Kim Baltus, director of that Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce.

The rains represent a “shot in the arm” for Minocqua that drier, central regions of Wisconsin missed, she said.

The heavily forested area of Minocqua allows the area to offer visitors fall tours and festivals, lumberjack shows, fishing and hiking.

It is at peak color and has already brought in thousands of visitors, Baltus said.


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