WINONA FOREST — Oswego County’s status as a prime destination for winter activities is in danger due to a changing climate, according to local experts.
The county’s famous heavy snowfall — with areas of the northern towns of Redfield and Boylston often boasting most-in-the-nation flake levels — creates a quality environment for winter activities such as snowmobiling, snowshoeing and skiing. Or at least it used to.
Average snowfall for the county once sat well above 100 inches per year, but in the last decade, that average has fallen precipitously and area winter organizations are already feeling the impact. Currently, Oswego is 47 inches below the normal snowfall rate for the snow season.
Matt Westerlund, president of the Winona Forest Recreation Association (WFRA), said when he was growing up in Oswego County, there was a dependable snowpack for the entire winter. Now, he has had to adjust with the changing climate.
“We saw the writing on the wall eight to 10 years ago when the winters started getting really unpredictable,” Westerlund said.
The WFRA created the Winona New Visions Project in reaction to the trend. The organization at its inception relied solely on revenue from snowmobile trail grooming, user membership and its annual Winona Forest Tourathon Nordic skiing race but those are no longer enough, according to Westerlund. Winona Forest now offers activities year-round, with trail rehabilitation catering to the needs of trail runners, hikers and mountain bikers. The forest’s winter schedule was also adjusted to accommodate new events and sports like the Stone Wall snowshoe race and the iditaFat fat tire bike race, both of which do not require ideal or even good snow conditions to take place.
Fulton Area Snow Travellers (FAST) trail coordinator Mike Schmid told The Palladium-Times his club’s roster is down to fewer than 200 members after peaking around 500 snow travelers about ten years ago. Schmid said FAST, as well as some other area clubs, have not officially opened their trails this year because of the lack of snow. Clubs from nearby Onondaga County said they are “in the same boat,” according to Schmid.
While his club is not in danger financially, Schmid said has had problems finding help grooming trails — and the fact winters are starting progressively later in the year has not helped.
“Climate change is definitely a problem. Personally, I believe we’re contributing,” Schmid said. “But I’m not going to give up snowmobiling to save the planet.”
Schmid said he is conscious of the emissions snowmobiling produces but said since four-stroke engines have become more commonplace in snowmobiles, there have been advancements in energy efficiency. Schmid also said since overall snowmobile participation has dropped statewide, there are less sleds to put out pollution.
Westerlund also said that the industry has moved in the direction of energy efficiency, both in snowmobiles and in grooming equipment. He believes the best way to make people more environmentally conscious is to get people out in nature, he being a largely “non-motorized person.” The events he has added to the WRFA’s docket are mostly of a non-polluting nature.
“You’re not going to keep snowmobiling if there’s no snow,” Westerlund said.