In Maine, snow is a natural-resource based industry.

For the big resorts, Sunday’s storm dumped another foot in Carrabassett Valley, and made Bethel dream of the world’s largest snowwoman. Smaller businesses like Nordic and cross-country ski centers and snowmobile renters, dealers and spectators are loving this weather, too.

In this snowfall windfall, piles of white mean piles of green. But what are snowflakes really worth?

Aside from industry estimates or conventional wisdom, a good answer doesn’t exist. For a state so dependent on nature-based tourism, there are still many details about the business of Maine visitation that remain unclear.

Available numbers hint at facts. Take employment: as a sector, tourism puts food on some 59,700 Mainers’ tables, according to the state. “Vacationland” is no misnomer; the forest product industry, for example, employs a mere 17,800, while tourism and manufacturing – which has 60,200 workers – have near-equal workforces.

Yet while the rise and fall of manufacturing is well-understood and analyzed, the leisure business operates under the economic radar. Not even those within the industry always know what’s the right formula.

Like debate over increasing lodging taxes. Some, like the Maine Innkeepers Association, objected because higher taxes would discourage visitors. Fair enough; higher taxes are almost always a disincentive. Other innkeepers, though, threw cold water on this notion, and said the tax didn’t matter.

Compare this to manufacturing, where there’s little internal discord about what higher taxes mean.

A dearth of hard data makes for difficult policymaking. In this new “quality of place” Maine, where nebulous qualities like “attractiveness” are now economic assets, an infirm statistical foundation is a serious problem.

Disagreement about what policies are harmful to an industry doesn’t make discovering what’s helpful any easier. Changing starts with numbers.

Maine doesn’t compile economic information on skiing/snowboarding impacts, like how many people this particular industry employs, or pays in wages, for example. Industry estimates are around, but Maine’s growth cannot depend on what could be marketing materials in disguise.

In 1997, a study for the Maine Snowmobiling Association showed a $225 million impact from the sport. But that was 10 years ago; it might as well be 100. Now there are new, exotic SnoCross events packing spectators into Rumford, and an in-state snowmobile registry topping 80,000. It seems like a boomtime.

There needs to be some numbers to prove it. Not only for snowmobiling, but also skiing, snowboarding and a host of other leisure activities important to Maine.

During a recent visit to the Sun Journal, the commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, John Richardson, talked about tourism as a separate entity in his office, and vowed to bring their interests closer. This really should have happened long ago; we’re glad it’s happening now.

Everybody “knows” tourism is valuable to Maine.

To protect this industry, while helping it grow, the state must ascertain just how much.

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