Vermont’s Official Foliage Forecaster | Driving with the Leaf Spotter

For Vermont’s state forestry commissioner, foliage season brings with it a colorful side gig.

By Jim Collins

Sep 05 2013


From Owl’s Head in Groton State Forest, Kettle Pond is visible to the west.

Photo Credit : Corey Hendrickson

Late last summer, Vermont’s tourism department announced that Michael Snyder, commissioner of the Forests, Parks & Recreation department, had been named the state’s first official “Foliage Forecaster.” Vermont is likely the only state that could justify such a position. Its landscape, 76 percent forested, carries the country’s highest proportion of the vibrantly colored but wildly variable sugar maple. Visitors spend some $400 million during the fleeting weeks of foliage each fall. The department’s Web site has also introduced a new foliage-tracking map to help travelers plan and adjust their trips along with the changing color. I was picturing aerial photography and remote sensors sending real-time data to the computers that generate the map’s bands: 20 percent color here, peak color there, just past peak above that …

I called Snyder and asked him how the forecasts and the map come together. I was interested not only in what provided the foliage map its data but in what gave the state its color, too. He suggested we go for a drive.

Route 25 in east-central Vermont lifts from the Connecticut River near Bradford and follows the Waits River Valley northwest (upstream) about halfway toward the state’s capital, Montpelier. The route skirts a geologic bedrock zone called the Waits River Formation, which dominates the eastern half of the state, and whose calcium-rich soils are generally sweeter and more productive than all of New Hampshire’s and most of the rest of Vermont’s.

“That’s one reason the color is so good here,” Snyder explained. “The calcareous soils produce bigger, more vigorous, faster-growing trees than just about anywhere else in the state.”

Out the window we could see the harbingers of the coming foliage season along the roadside: crimson woodbine, blazing sumac, purple asters, goldenrod. The first yellows of the season were emerging in the hillside canopies.

We passed a few small hardscrabble dairy farms still holding on, and Snyder talked about a different kind of bedrock when he said that he liked this area because it showed the transition from an old life to a new one.

We passed the little town-owned rope-tow ski area in East Corinth, and Snyder talked about the mix of species that gives the northern hardwood forest its distinctive hues—especially sugar and red maple, but also yellow birch and American beech, with cherry, ash, oak, and locust behind those, and, “for contrast and texture,” the evergreen hemlock, spruce, and pine—and how the changing climate was already changing the mix.

He pulled into Tillotson Trading, an antiques and salvage company, for a quick chat with owner Steve Tillotson. (“You’ll love this place,” Snyder told me. “There’s that Vermont sense of frugality, and the opinions are free.”) He had mentioned that trees’ turning color—getting ready to drop their leaves to conserve energy over the long winter—is how they avoid stress, but also how they display stress.

In West Topsham we drove by a newly built commercial sugaring operation and, just beyond it, a wide log landing piled high with cordwood. “The Limlaw family does a good job,” he said. He waved at the woodpile. “A third of Vermont kids go to schools heated with wood, and many homes are still heated by some form of wood. We wouldn’t be doing this tour if we didn’t have that history.”

Near the junction with U.S. Route 302, we swung past the forested wetlands at the headwaters of the Waits River, the nutrient-deprived swamp maples flaring brightly. We drove the long dirt road into Seyon Ranch State Park so that Snyder could touch base with the staff working at the lodge. He looked across Noyes Pond to the reddening slopes of Spruce Mountain and said, “Two days ago I would have called this ‘pre-foliage,’ but it’s starting to come now. I’d say 5 percent color.”

He fingered the leaf of a birch tree as he talked. “See the brown edges? Septoria fungus,” he noted. “Those brown edges won’t turn color. Last year we saw a lot more foliar disease because of the damp, humid spring—anthracnose and tar spots on the maples, especially. Those trees will recover. This year it’s been drought and pear thrips—tiny insects no bigger than black specks, but they can absolutely defoliate a tree.”

Along Route 232 in Groton, we passed a stream bed damaged by Tropical Storm Irene, and Snyder pointed out the closed-in, darker-green corridor we were driving through: “We’re out of the Waits Formation now—colder, more acidic soils, a tougher environment, so more softwoods, more forestry history than agricultural from here all the way through the Northeast Kingdom.”

And that’s pretty much the way it went for the rest of the day: Snyder talking about people and the land as we drove back into Groton State Forest and to Ricker Pond, then hiked up to a bigger landscape picture from Owl’s Head, where recent patch cuts showing state woodcock-management areas stood out like scars in the forested carpet. Back out 302 through Orange and around to Route 110 through Washington and Chelsea, past still-green tamarack swamps and 90-percent sugar-maple hillsides in full blush, past new horse farms and struggling old dairies and cottage woodworking businesses.

I told Snyder about my image of aerial photography and remote sensors. “Well, you could call my truck ‘Foliage Central,’” he replied. “During this whole drive I’ve been receiving inputs and cataloguing data. We have 12 county foresters doing the same thing. They submit reports to me twice a week during foliage season about what they’re seeing on the ground, and what they’re hearing from the landowners who are most connected to the land. I use my judgment to try and turn their reports into numbers. I guess as far as the forecasting goes, I’m proud to say that it still comes mostly from local knowledge.”

On the Goose Green Road shortcut heading home toward Route 25 and the Waits River Valley, Snyder pointed out a ridgeline of tan- and brown-tinged sugar maples. The drabness looked drought-related, but Snyder knew the landowner and made a note to himself to call and see whether he’d had trouble with pear thrips along that ridge. “Trees are resilient,” he said, “but they can’t move.”

He could just as easily have been talking about a state’s people. “They have to deal with any stresses right where they are,” Snyder added. “That dance of stress and resiliency plays out in a color scheme.”