Drought threatens autumn's glory

THE LEAVES are starting to turn in New England, and the stomachs of some of the region's businessmen and officials are turning with them.

This is the time of year when the forests of America's North-east become a spectacular natural fireworks display, turning yellow, red, orange, brown and purple. And as they do so, the bank accounts of the local community turn to black. But this year, the drought which has hit the whole Atlantic coast of America threatens this annual bonanza, and a lot of livelihoods.

Fall is a fetish for Americans. Each state runs websites, telephone lines, and information services with up-to-the minute descriptions of where the leaves are turning, when they will reach their peak, and how to get there. New York state, for example, describes the fall in a way which blends the nation's obsession with statistics with the style of a Manhattan waitress. "This weekend, Old Forge, in the Central Adirondacks, expects color changes of up to 45 per cent, highlighted by red and green leaves.," it reports. "Tupper Lake is predicting a 40 to 45 per cent color change with celery green, yellow and dark purple leaves."

This is not mere admiration of nature for its own sake. The Leaf Peepers, as they are called, are good business. New Hampshire typically gets about seven million visitors, who spend about $100 (pounds 60 ) each.

But this year's drought has raised fears that the leaves will turn early, and perhaps not achieve their full colouration. That has the Maine Office of Tourism worried. As the most northerly of the New England states, and the poorest, it is concerned that the bad press will turn off the tourists, andit launched a campaign last week to reassure visitors that the colours will be there.

That may help this year, but what next? Environmentalists in New England point out that shorter winters, longer, drier summers and the increased frequency of flooding, winter thaws and summer droughts are all associated with global warming.

The news seems to have been brighter in recent weeks, however. Last weekend brought rain to much of the mid-Atlantic region. And northern New England has not, as the tourism boards point out, had as dry a summer as the states further to the south.

But just in case, tourists heading home were handed special computer mouse pads with a picture of a moose, called moosepads. "If you enjoyed Maine in the summer," it says, "you'll love it in the fall."