OLD FORGE — The average snowmobiler in Oneida County rides between 100 and 200 miles through the county’s trails each year.
On those trips, riders stop for a variety of reasons. They’re eating, drinking, filling up with gas and generally spending money in small towns along the way.
"Without the revenue from snowmobiling, Oneida County would hurt big time," said Oneida County Area Snowmobile Association President Jaimie Warner. "They need the snowmobilers up there."
But the Fourth National Climate Assessment, released Nov. 23, outlines a changing climate that may hinder tourism industries based on a consistent climate, such as snowmobiling.
The study suggests numerous possibilities of climate change in the United States. These projections vary depending on the amount of population growth, the amount of technological innovation and the carbon intensity increase of global energy over time.
But even the best of those scenarios could mean bad news for local winter tourism.
In the study’s northeast region, which includes the Mohawk Valley and the North Country, there is an expected 3.6 degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature on average from the preindustrial era.
That, and other factors may create more mild winters, the study found, "with fewer cold extremes, particularly across inland and northern portions of the northeast."
Even under conservative scenarios, "the average length of the winter recreation season and the number of recreational visits are projected to decrease by mid-century," the report found.
That possibility is disconcerting to local experts in communities such as the Town of Webb and Old Forge in Herkimer County — economies that are based around four-season tourism.
"We’re almost totally weather-dependent," said Mike Farmer, tourism director for the Town of Webb. "The people who come here and decide they want to live here, they came here for the attractions and the activities that we have here."
The community has heavily invested in winter tourism. They have a snowmobiling system that extends close to 500 miles, which they use to hold events such as the annual Snodeo. The town also owns the ski hills on McCauley Mountain.
Though the report suggests that the southern part of the region will see the worst impacts, Old Forge has had to contend with declining snow amounts for many years — and has started adapting accordingly by building their grooming fleet.
"These guys are magicians," Farmer said, "so that when other areas are out of business, we still have two-three inches of frozen base and we’re one of the only places left — both at the beginning of the year or at the end of the season."
Farmer also said the culture of Old Forge and the Town of Webb is built around the attraction of its natural resources. As such, the infrastructure in the community isn’t built for bringing any other industry into the area — the power and broadband infrastructure can’t support any significant industries.
That is why, in the short term, they’re looking to extend their seasons and activities that Farmer hopes "fit into long-term results."
In 2017, Oneida County earned more than $1.5 billion in visitor spending, with large sources of money from the Comets, Vernon Downs, Turning Stone Resort Casino, Fort Stanwix and the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.
Winter tourism draws — such as snowmobiling, ice fishing and skiing — certainly are contributing factors to that. But Oneida County Tourism President Kelly Blazosky says the industry includes much more.
"The one advantage that we have in Central New York is that we do have year-round, seasonal changes," she said, "and that we do have well-developed year-round activities."
In the summer, there are numerous local festivals and concerts, as well as the draw of Verona Beach and Sylvan Beach. In the fall, tourism revenue comes from attractions such as the Adirondack Scenic Railroad.
The national climate report found that the northeast region is projected to experience "significant increase in summer heat and the number and/or duration of heat waves …."
There is no data from the report on how that will affect summer tourism industries. But hot weather can have a negative impact on festival attendance, Blazosky said, because "people don’t want to deal with the heat."
The report also is unclear on the impact of a changing climate on fall foliage. On one hand, the changing climate may advance leaf coloring and leaf drop, and added precipitation may delay coloring.
But the report also forecasts that deciduous trees could see an increase in the amount of autumn foliage color.
"If we start shrinking our fall season … then that’s going to impact that window of opportunity for us to capture people to come here and see our fall foliage," Blazosky said.
So far, however, climate changes in Oneida County, have largely been subtle, Blazosky said. And there have not been conversations between the tourism office and other county officials about planning for potential big-picture changes. Individual event organizers, however, are used to keeping an eye on the weather.
"Those that are in charge of events that are outdoors, know that they’re always weather-dependent," Blazosky said. "It literally is event by event … looking at forecasts to see what week they might be safest to go ahead (with) the event."