September 13, 2008: Albany Times Union, Official leaf-peepers behind state updates on fall hues

Eye on changing landscape
Official leaf-peepers behind state updates on fall hues
By SHARON HONG, Staff writer
First published: Saturday, September 13, 2008
GRAFTON -- Frances May keeps one eye on the road and the other on the trees while driving to work each day this time of year.

It's been her fall custom for 14 years to take note of the leaves around Grafton Lakes State Park, where she works as a park and recreation aide.

May is an official state leaf-peeper, whose job is watching for the change from green to more vibrant colors.

Observers like May report what they see to the Empire State Development Division of Tourism, which creates the fall updates residents and tourists use to find peak leaf color around the state.

"We get yellows and oranges and rusts and reds," May said. "I think the sugar maples -- sugar maples are the red and orange combination on the same tree -- they're the prettiest."

Volunteers like May are recruited through tourism promotion agencies or public appeals, said Eric Scheffel, senior public information specialist for the state tourism division. He calls himself "head leaf-peeper."

Volunteers file weekly reports noting the approximate percentage of trees that have changed in their area, the brilliance of the colors, the predominant color and stage of progress. The task is one part diligence and two parts enthusiasm, Scheffel said.

"They just have to have enthusiasm for observing and recording what they see," Scheffel said.

Initially, May said, "Oh, it was a fun thing to do, it was a volunteer thing, and I just liked doing it.

"I've always liked trees and being in the country and nature. ... When we were in school we used to go and collect leaves and we would press them between two pieces of wax paper."

Most of the state's 60 official peepers have dual lives as employees of tourism offices or state parks. A few members of the public have volunteered, including an elementary school student, Scheffel recalled. He was supervised by his mother, who helped record and send in his observations, Scheffel said.

Currently, there are five or six citizen peepers.

Updates from the foliage spotters are compiled and generated into progress reports for the I Love New York program. The report is available on the I Love New York Web site and through a hot line. I Love New York also creates a color-coded map indicating peak foliage change across the state.

The first report for this fall was released on Wednesday and predicts 30 percent color change in the Adirondacks around Mount Arab and Tupper Lake and 15 percent around the Catskills. Trees around the rest of the state are showing 10 percent or less color change.

Around Grafton, it's about 2 percent, May said.

The state posts weekly reports on Wednesdays through the end of the season in mid- to late October.

The peak in the region usually is around Columbus Day, a long weekend for many tourists, Scheffel said. Last year's peak was around Oct. 17.

May predicts the viewing season will be good this year.

"Last year, it was kind of a dull year, the leaves seemed to just turn brown and then fall off," she said. "But this year they're starting to really color. I think we'll have a really good season if we don't get too much rain."

Tourism to the Adirondack and Catskill regions brought in more than $2 billion in the past eight years and is a $1.6 billion industry in the Capital Region, supporting 32,560 jobs, according to Empire State Development's NYS Tourism Economic Impact Study from 2008.

Fall attracts a significant number of visitors.

May encouraged residents and tourists to take advantage of the weekends to enjoy the foliage. "Definitely, if you want to get your children out, away from the computer, take 'em leaf-peeking," said.

But, she warned, "Be careful when you're driving."

Sharon Hong can be reached at 454-5414 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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