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Mild winter takes a toll on Maine's outdoor sports, seasonal economy

Mar. 31—Maine's increasingly warm and snowless winters have been challenging for winter-reliant businesses and communities.

And the 2023-24 season was especially tough for many.

Thin ice frustrated pond hockey leagues and ice-fishing derbies, winter rainstorms damaged ski resort infrastructure, and the lack of snow led to the cancellation of Can-Am Crown, New England's marquee dog sledding race.

But it probably hit Maine's snowmobile industry hardest, according to state officials and industry leaders.

"It was devastating," said Al Swett, the president of the 14,000-member Maine Snowmobile Association.

The Waterville man said he took his sled out only three times and logged just 250 miles. During a normal winter, he logs about 2,000 miles. Last weekend's storm came too late for many snowmobile areas, Swett said. A lot of clubs had already pulled up their stakes and signs for the season.

The long-term trend of warming winters is taking its toll on the industry, with the number of snowmobile registrations in Maine falling to 60,000 this year from more than 90,000 just a few years ago. Swett said too many people thought it was not worth the bother to register their sled.

"It's heartbreaking because we bring in big money" from sledders living across the Northeast, Swett said.

Before the pandemic, when registration numbers were at their peak, the industry directly contributed $459 million a year to Maine's economy and supported almost 2,300 jobs, according to a 2020 study by the University of Maine. With food, lodging, and fuel included, that total topped $600 million.

The 2023-24 snowmobile season — which started late, ended early and in some places never happened at all — was not enough to sustain the rural communities that rely on snowmobilers' indirect spending to survive the winter, community leaders said.

Dawn Bernier, the owner of Dean's Motor Lodge in Portage, wrote in a letter to Gov. Janet Mills in February that her 16 hotel rooms, two cabins and restaurant have been empty for much of the season. She can usually count on three good months of snowmobile business, but this year she managed only five decent weeks.

The Maine Tourism Association doesn't have comprehensive data from winter businesses, but Director Tony Cameron said that some seasonal operators have told him this year's business was down by as much as 50%.

"It's a serious topic and there are discussions going on about how to build more resilient infrastructure, but better business plans as well," Cameron said. "We're an outdoor mecca. People come here to recreate, no matter the season."

Cameron said even though the weather didn't cooperate this winter, the state's visitor centers still saw a lot of traffic from people looking for things to do and explore. Businesses might have to diversify and start offering activities that aren't so dependent on cold, snowy weather, he said.

Jenny Kordick, executive director of Maine Outdoor Brands, a 150-member organization that works closely with Maine's Office of Outdoor Recreation to market and promote the state's outdoor economy, said members have been using the word "resilience" a lot this winter.

"We're a $3.3 billion industry that is reliant on people being able to be outside, so we're at the mercy of the weather, good or bad," she said. "We're certainly learning that we need to be more flexible and willing to adapt."

The ski industry, for instance, has invested heavily in snowmaking capabilities and can produce better manmade snow now with less energy than ever before.

"The bottom line for ski areas in Maine is that we don't actually need any natural snow at all," said Dirk Gouwens, director of Ski Maine Association. "We have enough snowmaking capability to cover most of our slopes with man-made snow, and the quality of this snow is getting better all the time."

Natural snow helps cut down on the cost of snowmaking, which can drive up operation expenses, and gives skiers the look and feel of winter, which can persuade them to start skiing earlier in the year, stay longer when they visit, and return more often during the season, Gouwens said.

It was the deadly December rainstorm — the kind of storm that climate scientists say will happen in Maine more often — that caused flooding and major ski resort infrastructure damage right before Christmas break, reallying hurt Maine's ski season, Gouwens said.

While Maine won't see a record ski season this year, state ski resorts expect skier numbers to be close to the 10-year average, or between 1.2 million and 1.3 million daily ski visits for the season, Gouwens said. Last year, Maine's second-best ski season, saw 1.33 million.

The resorts don't share revenue data with Ski Maine — and half of Maine's ski operations are nonprofits — but Gouwens said they must be doing well enough to fund major infrastructure investments, including two high-tech chairlifts at Sunday River and one at Sugarloaf, while preparing for the future.

"Ski areas are well-aware of the change to our global climate," Gouwens said. "We are absolutely dependent upon the weather for the products and services we provide to the public. It is something that we identified over 20 years ago and have been working on solutions for decades now."

Many of Maine's ski areas have pledged to produce fewer greenhouse gases than they remove by 2030.

"Climate is quickly becoming one of the top pillars for us to think about," Kordick said. "But these changes aren't happening only in Maine, it's across the country. We're still going to have winters. That's still something for us to embrace and invest in as a state."

Not everyone who laments this year's lack of winter snow relies on it for a paycheck. Some need it to put food on their table, or in their freezer. Some simply count on it for recreational purposes. Some worry that it's a sign of things to come, and of a disappearing way of life.

"Short winters impact our members in many ways," said Robert Bryan of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. "For those who enjoy ice fishing, the season of safe ice has shrunk dramatically. Many of our members enjoy tracking deer in the snow, but now there's seldom snow in the regular deer season."

The Harpswell resident said the explosion of winter ticks related to warmer winters has triggered a high mortality rate among moose calves — which threatens both the future of sustainable moose hunting, long enjoyed in Maine, as well as the state's moose population.