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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — With plenty of fresh snow covering much of northern New England, this winter's snowmobile season is off to a good start — good news in an era when scientists predict the warming climate is going to reduce the amount of time people will be able to cross the countryside on their motorized sleds.
Trails in southern Vermont are mostly ready for use by snowmobilers after a heavy wet snow recently set the base, followed by a dump this week in some areas. And temperatures are forecast to stay cold for the foreseeable future.
Stan Choiniere, president of the Chester Snowmobile Club, one of the largest clubs in the state, said it opened its trails Saturday.
"We haven't had much luck the last few years, especially early in the season," said Choiniere, 60, who has been riding for 50 years.
There is similar good news for snowmobilers across much of the country, including the upper Midwest, although it is spotty in areas out west, said Christine Jourdain, executive director of the Michigan-based American Council of Snowmobile Associations.
"We talk every day to Mother Nature and tell her, 'Please bring the white gold,'" she said.
In the age of warming climate, scientists say snowmobiling, which is entirely dependent on natural snow and cold temperatures, faces an uncertain future.
Cindy Locke, the executive director of the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, which oversees snowmobiling in the state, said snowmobilers have learned to adapt by trailering their snowmobiles to where there is snow.
While snowmobiling doesn't get as much attention as the ski industry, it has a significant economic impact in the areas where people ride. In Vermont, it has an estimated annual impact of about $500 million. In New Hampshire, that figure is around $586 million.
Statistics compiled by the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association estimates the industry has a $26 billion impact in the U.S. and another $8 billion in Canada.
Scientists with the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, located entirely within the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire, said that in the last 60 years the average winter temperatures has increased 3.5 degrees. They also found the annual maximum snow depth measured at one location declined by 10 inches and the period of snow cover has declined by 19 days.
"I think anecdotally people recognize that winter is waning in New England," said John Campbell a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service based in Durham, New Hampshire, who helped assemble the statistics. "This is hitting snowmobilers especially hard because they need natural snow to ride."
Scientists at the University of Vermont reached similar conclusions. A survey of members of the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers found that almost half of snowmobilers have noticed the seasons are shorter and that as the trend continues, riders are likely to give up the activity.
"I see really big trouble ahead," said Robert Manning, who helped conduct the survey. "I am sorry to say that because I think snowmobiling is a very important recreation activity in Vermont. I think it contributes to the economy. I think it's part of Vermont's culture, but I don't know that snowmobiling is sustainable into the future."
In Vermont, the season opens every year Dec. 16 and it runs through April 15.
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