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Warm December might imperil snowmobiling season

The executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, one of the prime engines to the state’s $300 million to $350 million snowmobile industry, isn’t particularly concerned about the state having its warmest November on record last month or being on track for its rainiest year ever.

The meteorologically predicted repeat of the excellent winter his industry enjoyed last year won’t be threatened, he said, unless the unseasonably warm weather continues for a few more weeks.

“What we need more than snow, right now, is cold weather, and it kind of looks right now we are going to have that,” Meyers said Saturday. “This summer was so wet that the ground is really soggy everywhere. If we get a lot of snow now it will never hold it. We really need a good hard freeze.”

With its 288 clubs, 13,500 families and 2,200 businesses working almost entirely as volunteers grooming the state’s approximately 14,500 miles of trails, the association is a crucial part of any state sledding season, Meyers said.

His measure of a snowmobile season’s success is the number of registrations of snowmobilers. By that count, he said, the 2010-11 season was excellent — almost 5,000 more riders paid the $41 resident and $89 nonresident fees that mostly go to trail maintenance. Slightly more than 91,000 registrations were made in 2010-11, he said.

Last year’s season benefited from a superb 2009-10 season. The state registered slightly more than 102,000 snowmobiles that year, a record number, Meyers has said. Nonresident snowmobile registration climbed 30 percent last year over 2006 results. That gave last year’s snowmobiling huge momentum, he said.

Mother Nature might provide weather cold enough to give Meyers the frosty ground he desires over the next several days, but snow heavy enough to enable sledding might take longer, said Joe Hewitt, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service station in Caribou.

Sunday’s temperatures are expected to dip into the teens in northern Maine and into the low- to mid-20s in the Bangor region and Down East. A frontal system expected to hit Monday or Tuesday won’t deposit more than a few inches of snow in the state’s northernmost regions, if that much, with temperatures in the mid- to upper 20s into Wednesday, Hewitt said.

“A really cold outbreak could really temper things down. The lack of snow on the ground could allow the frost to go deeper, too,” Hewitt said.

Temperatures will likely rise into the 30s and low 40s by Thursday, however. That’s been the chaotic weather pattern for the last several months, Hewitt said – seasonally cold temperatures for a few days followed by unseasonable warmth for a few days after.

That’s partly why December is shaping up to be one of the warmest on record. If the tumultuous weather patterns continue, this month will finish averaging temperatures about 6 degrees warmer than usual — not a good sign for snowmobilers, Hewitt said.

The only constant since the summer, Hewitt said, has been abnormally heavy rainfall.

Maine is closing in on its all-time record for rain in a single year. Since Jan. 1, 54 inches of precipitation have fallen. In a normal year, Maine averages about 37.15 inches of rain, Hewitt said.

Snowfall heavy enough to create at least some sledding conditions likely won’t occur until sometime after Christmas, with a heavy weather front meteorologists are just beginning to track, Hewitt said.

Meyers is undeterred. Last year, snowmobiling didn’t really start in Maine until a week or so after Dec. 25, and it really didn’t stop until April, he said. Unusually heavy snowfalls created what appeared to be excellent conditions in places that don’t usually see them — Down East and southern Maine.

Meyers believes the same thing will occur this year, though Hewitt wasn’t sure. Hewitt didn’t have long-range snow forecast data immediately available.

One element that might have somewhat imperiled northern Maine snowmobiling this year, environmentalist Roxanne Quimby’s threats to deny clubs access to key statewide trails running across her land near Millinocket, has worked out favorably, Meyers said.

All the clubs that have applied to her for permission to use Quimby’s lands have received it, he said.

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