By David MacDonald
As community discussion has begun regarding last month’s release of Acadia National Park’s draft Transportation Plan, I am reminded of the balancing act we all seek in managing a national treasure that also happens to be our collective backyard.
Sharing “our” park with millions of visitors each year is a mixed blessing. When I tell a neighbor that Acadia’s visitation is up nearly 60 percent over the last decade, the reaction is usually a groan; but when the discussion turns to our local economy and the $338 million that the park helped generate in economic activity in our communities last year, there is pride and enthusiasm. Trying to find a parking spot at your favorite trailhead on an August afternoon can be maddening; but the bike ride I took on the Loop Road on a beautiful spring morning this weekend was spectacular — and I saw less than a dozen cars.
Park officials have spent the last two years engaging hundreds of residents, partners, businesses and visitors in discussion about ideas for how to better manage the crush of vehicles that comes during peak season, while also analyzing the visitation data and patterns in some of the park’s busiest sites, such as Cadillac Mountain, the Park Loop Road and Jordan Pond. The goal of this effort is to allow us to maintain the very things that make Acadia special — the transformative experiences, the stunning beauty, the diverse wildlife, and the rich history — without having them overrun and “loved to death.”
Broad consensus has emerged on the need for some new approaches: with more than a million more visitors to Acadia than just a few years ago, the number of vehicles trying to access the narrow, winding park roads and relatively modest parking lots has increasingly brought gridlock, frustration, resource damage and occasionally dangerous conditions. This is not the Acadia experience that any of us want for ourselves or for visitors.
Here at Friends of Acadia, we are encouraged by and supportive of the thoughtful approaches outlined by the park in the “preferred alternative” released last week. Providing more options for visitors to pre-plan their visits, access better real-time information about parking and traffic conditions in the park, take advantage of expanded park-and-ride facilities and utilize an increased Island Explorer bus service all make sense. Reducing the extent of right-lane parking on Ocean Drive and roadside parking along busy state highways will make the roads safer for bikers and pedestrians.
Even the concept of reservations for the busiest parts of the park — the section of the plan that has received the most spirited debate in recent days — is worth pursuing, as long as the park is able to stay attuned to the many types of use patterns and motivations at different times of day and year. FOA believes strongly that the plan needs to be adaptive, as we will all inevitably learn as we go, and conditions may well change in the years to come. When and if a final version of the plan is approved, implementation of specific strategies will not likely begin until 2019 or 2020.
Those of us who live here year-round and use the park on a daily basis should do our best to keep an open mind and a forward-looking perspective. I remember my own reaction decades ago when the park first started selling park entrance passes. I felt that as a resident it shouldn’t apply to me (and I wouldn’t need one anyway, as I knew the many ways to navigate around the one entrance fee station near Sand Beach). I also remember my own skepticism when the Island Explorer bus system was launched: a nice idea, I thought, but this is rural Maine, and people aren’t used to riding public transportation. Seven million riders later, the Island Explorer is an integral part of our neighboring communities and the Acadia experience, and I now consider my annual pass a great bargain for my family’s enjoyment of the park year-round. I also appreciate that pass revenue is paying for important projects throughout the park.
All this is not to say that the Transportation Plan necessarily has it 100 percent spot on with its current preferred alternative. The draft will benefit from everyone’s review and feedback during the next 45 days. In fact, the plan is already the product of our collective involvement over the past two years. Just as Acadia itself is unique as a national park for the extent to which local passion and commitment contributed to its creation, so too can Acadia’s approaches to transportation and visitation be singular for their ability to incorporate community input and accommodate users of all kinds while protecting the park we all treasure.
To comment or view the full text of the plan visit the Acadia Transportation Plan website. For a schedule of upcoming meetings check local media outlets or visit friendsofacadia.com for schedules of public forums dedicated to its discussion. Please feel free to join the discussion at the Acadia National Park Transportation Forum on Facebook.
David MacDonald is president and CEO of Friends of Acadia. The mission of the Bar Harbor-based organization is to preserve, protect and promote stewardship of the outstanding natural beauty, ecological vitality and distinctive cultural resources of Acadia National Park and surrounding communities for the inspiration and enjoyment of current and future generations.