In Vermont, During Fall, Money Grows On Trees

Fall foliage, it's not just a bunch of pretty colored leaves. In some Northeastern states, it's key to the tourist trade between summer and winter. But the timing has to be just right to take advantage of the long Columbus Day weekend.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, it's getting a bit colder in many areas of the country. We've got those brisk mornings and chilly evenings. Great weather. Football weather for many of us. For many state tourism offices, of course, it means gearing up for a lucrative time of year known as foliage season. Travelers can use websites and apps to learn where and when fall colors are supposed to be the most brilliant. And predicting that in Vermont is serious business.

Vermont Public Radio's Charlotte Albright recently toured a few back roads with the state's official leaf forecaster.

CHARLOTTE ALBRIGHT, BYLINE: They say money doesn't grow on trees. Vermont's Commissioner of Tourism and Marketing disagrees.

MEGAN SMITH: I'd like to say that money falls from trees at this time of year.

ALBRIGHT: Tourism Commissioner Megan Smith says Vermont's red and gold foliage usually attracts about three and a half million visitors in the fall. That's almost six times the state's population. They spend about $460 million while they're here. So Vermont competes fiercely with other forested states to lure so-called leaf peepers as soon as possible for as long as possible.

Which is why, on some autumn afternoons, Mike Snyder, Commissioner of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, trades in his suit for a pair of jeans, hops in a green pick-up truck...

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ALBRIGHT: ...and scours the state for first signs of color.

MIKE SNYDER: See that hillside across the way out there? It's kind of rimmed by spruce and pine...

ALBRIGHT: He starts on a ridge in the coldest corner of Vermont known as the Northeast Kingdom.

SNYDER: ...and then this pocket of orange that's developing, that's very dense, looks like a very dense sugar maple stand that is turning nicely in kind of an early phase, in kind of a muted, more of a russet tone to it.

ALBRIGHT: Snyder figures it will only take a few more hours of freezing temperatures at night, and a day or two of sunshine to turn that russet into day-glo red. His predictions will feed a map at Fall Foliage Central, on a state website that also includes blog posts and current videos tracking the spread of color. He also keeps a wary eye out for trees that might not be so pretty this year.

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ALBRIGHT: Pausing his tour along a stream bank, he holds up a leaf with brown spots.

SNYDER: Some - we call it leaf scorch. It was kind of burned by heat.

ALBRIGHT: But there is still a bit of green left along the edges, so Snyder hopes this tree will throw at least a little fall color into the overall mix. Foliage forecasting, he says, is part science, part guesswork. He's got a sugar maple in his own yard that some years turns red and other years turns yellow.

SNYDER: It's the tree and its genetic makeup interacting with the vagaries of the conditions from year to year.

ALBRIGHT: Not far away, at the stately brick Inn at Mountain View Farm, owner Marilyn Pastore scans a rainbow-colored ridge from an Adirondack chair on the front lawn. Here, foliage is likely to peak in about a week. Pastore hopes the color will linger through the long Columbus Day weekend.

MARILYN PASTORE: Foliage is very important to us. It is a big piece of our revenue but what we notice is that people come mid-week during foliage season, so we are full.

ALBRIGHT: While the trees are changing fast in this northern pocket, foresters estimate that only 20 percent of Vermont's leaves have turned so far. But their tracking map predicts the whole state will be colorful by Columbus Day, if rain or snow doesn't bring an early end to the foliage season.

For NPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright in Northeastern Vermont.

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