For drought-stressed trees, a fading promise of color

Western Md. economy heavily dependent on visitors to fall foliage

August 18, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND -- The falling yellow leaves say autumn is here. The calendar disagrees. Blame the drought.

Those conjuring up soothing visions of splendid fall foliage as an escape from this blast-furnace summer had better have a Plan B. Trees from Western Maryland to the Washington suburbs are losing leaves more than a month ahead of schedule as they attempt to survive the worst drought in 70 years.

When stressed, trees lose leaves like some people lose their hair. "It's a defense mechanism to ease the burden," explains Jim Simms, Garrett County agricultural agent. "It's less stressful for the tree if there's less to feed."

Trees lose their outermost leaves first; pines drop their needles. Those symptoms are showing up in maples, poplars, sycamores, birches and white pines, say horticulturists across the state.

A few showers have slowed the premature progress of fall here and there, but veteran foliage watchers believe the trees are calling it a year.

"It's a bad scene," says Mel Poole, superintendent of Catoctin Mountain Park in Frederick County, which gets a large percentage of its 750,000 annual visitors in October. "If we get a couple of storms pounding in here in September, we might be able to salvage something."

The colors have been "medium at best" the past two years, says Poole, who predicts that the display this autumn will be much worse.

That's bad news in Western Maryland. Allegany County greets almost half of its tourists in October. Frederick harvests at least 30 percent of its tourism dollars in the fall. In Garrett, the figure is 25 percent.

The ingredients for a fabulous fall are simple: Rain in spring and summer, followed by warm, sunny days and crisp nights in September and October. "I don't think we're going to see any of those," Poole says.

Horticulturists say the trouble won't end with the dropping of leaves.

"Next year, there will probably be a lot of dead trees. They'll leaf out, you'll think they're OK, and then they'll die," says Sandy Scott, who works in Washington County. "Insects and disease will sense the weakest trees and come in for the kill."

In Cumberland, the operators of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad have their fingers crossed that brown leaves won't put a damper on October, which accounts for almost 30 percent of their business.

"We've ordered 10,000 gallons of red and yellow paint," laughs General Manager Ed Kemmet.

Kemmet is keeping one eye on the sky as the railroad books passengers for its popular extended foliage trips from Cumberland to Oakland in Garrett County on Oct. 16 and 17.

So far, he says, reservations are good. They would probably be better if the rains came and revived the trees.

"If the trees are brown or bare, it could have a definite negative effect," he says. "We just have to grin and bear it because none of us has any control over it."

But, he says in jest, he is developing a backup plan to keep passengers happy: "We could have some fall foliage painted on a backdrop and roll it along."

Bed-and-breakfast owners say fall reservations are a little slow but believe tourists will begin calling once they realize that drought-stricken Pennsylvania, New York and New England are not an alternative.

The potential lack of color isn't worrying organizers of this year's Catoctin Color Fest, scheduled for Oct. 9 and 10. Tens of thousands pack Thurmont to view the crafts and sample foods made by church groups.

"It doesn't matter. We have bus loads coming from Philadelphia, Baltimore, Annapolis. We've had them come in the pouring rain. Nothing stops them," says Trish Bodmer, publicity president.

"I think they'd come in the snow."

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