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Fear of falling

Maia Chavez

In a year when the tourism industry has had to battle popular perception as much as its own fear of the unknown, in which resort town businesses have been hard-hit by a killer combination of economic downturn, drought, fire and travel trepidation, the specter of a stunted fall color season might seem like the last straw.But is the early change just the latest casualty of the drought year, or are we in for a much-needed long, white winter? Opinionsremain divided in a resort town gun-shy after a difficult summer, and even high-country natives say they don’t know what to expect.”I see that the Farmer’s Almanac thinks it’s going to be wetter and colder this winter, but I really have no way of knowing if there’s any validity to that prediction,” says Frank Johnson, president of the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau (VVCTB).A long-time local and avid hiker, Johnson says he doesn’t recall ever having seen the leaves begin to change this early at low altitudes.”Not in my memory,” he says. “You typically see the leaves start to change higher up at this point in the season, but not down this low.”According to the U.S. Forest Service, an early change in leaves is a sign of an unhealthy or traumatized tree, whether due to physical damage, proximity to a roadway, or drought conditions. Under normal conditions, the principle factor in the timing of the color change is the amount of sunlight that a given area receives as the year progresses.With the shortening of the days, the growth process of the trees begins to slow, responding to cooling temperatures and a decrease in sunlight, which the trees use to create nutrients.The chlorophyll in leaves uses the energy of the sun to create carbohydrates and sugars through the process of photosynthesis. As the days grow shorter and the nights colder, decreased photosynthetic activity results in the formation of a hard cell layer at the base of the leaf, inhibiting the flow of moisture and nutrients and causing the leaves to change color and fall.”The weather conditions are a big factor affecting the duration of the color, and how quickly the leaves will drop,” says Bob Currie, a field forester with the Holy Cross Ranger District. “Severe drought conditions tend to speed that process.”Currie, who is currently compiling data for a study on the condition of the local forests, spends every day from 7 a.m. until dusk in field. A forester since 1975, he says he has never seen a drought this severe anywhere in the Central Rockies.”I’ve never seen an aspen tree look wilted until this summer,” he says. “Research says that the aspen is extremely drought-tolerant, adapted to handle the broad swings of our climate. I learned recently that the bole of an aspen tree is 50 percent water, 50 percent wood, so that the diameter of the bole can fluctuate considerably from a drought season to a wet season.”The news as far as color is concerned may not be all bad, however. Currie says the worst scenario for a color season is an extremely wet summer, resulting in “rust,” or fungus, that can cause the leaves to brown and drop off without turning color.”With the drought, we might actually see a bright, bold, if brief splash of color,” he says. “But there’s no telling for sure in a year as unusual as this. We’ll just have to watch it unfold.”Darryl Bangert, owner of Lakota Guides, has also spent much of his time in the forests in and around Vail, working as a backcountry guide in the area since 1975. His company offers heated Hummer tours and raft trips for leaf-watchers each fall.”Yes, in the last couple of years I have seen the seasons to be a little out of sync from what I’m used to,” he says. “The springs have been a little early, and we are seeing a few leaves change a little early this year. But I have a degree in environmental studies, and I studied climatology, so I’m fully aware that knowledge of how to accurately predict the seasons is just developing over the past 10-15 years. Is this just a passing climactic fluctuation? We’ll just have to wait and see. Nature does exactly what it needs to do, and we just have to accept that and deal with it.”Bangert says he feels that the concern over an abnormally early fall may be a little over-inflated, however.”People are always shocked when the leaves start to turn,” he says. “But at the end of every August you see it start to happen. My daughter was born on Sept. 18, 1983, so I have a distinct memory of that day as being peak for the leaves. We aren’t so far off.”The Forest Service cites the third or fourth week of September as thetypical peak in the Rockies.Bangert says he expects to see the full range of colors on his tours this fall, with the box elder and cottonwoods changing a week or two after the aspen, followed by the scrub oak, dogwood and willow along the Colorado River later in September and into October.As to the fate of the business community this fall season, Johnson says the VVCTB has stepped up its efforts to generate tourism for the months of September and October. Still, he says, there’s little doubt that businesses are feeling the strain.”I think that people generally are nervous,” he says. “They’re coming off a marginal winter last year, and this summer has been really tough for a lot of businesses. So yes, I think many business owners are going into the winter with some trepidation.”Bangert says he feels that, historically, long periods of drought haveresulted in significant social stress, and that local business owners would do well to stand together and support each other through difficult times.”As local businesses get more and more stressed, people are in danger of losing their livelihood and their life’s work, and things start to get strange,” he says. “People behave differently. They can get mean.”Johnson says that the VVCTB held aside funds this year in order to extend its fall advertising campaign and increase the events and activities throughout September and October. This year, Vail’s Oktoberfest will occupy two weekends in September instead of just one, and the addition of the Festival Italiano Sept. 7-8 makes for three consecutive weekends of festivity.”We normally focus on the Denver market this time of year, but this year we’ve extended our focus to the neighboring states as well,” says Johnson. “We certainly hope this will provide a little boost for the business community before the winter sets in.”


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