Valuing our parks, understanding their history

Posted April 22, 2010, at 8:17 p.m.

This week, Americans celebrate National Park Week. By presidential proclamation, the entrance fees are waived at all national parks through Sunday to encourage everyone to explore the tremendous natural and cultural assets wisely set aside by our forefathers. In Maine, we are fortunate that this week coincides with April school vacation, so there is no better time to get out with our families to enjoy the great outdoors, particularly at Maine’s own jewel, Acadia National Park.

As we visit Acadia this year, we should take a minute to think about why this great national park exists. The breathtaking scenery, rugged coastline and bold granite peaks of Mount Desert Island inspired landowners to want to preserve this special place for future generations. Philanthropists such as George B. Dorr, Charles W. Eliot and John D. Rockefeller Jr. gave of their personal fortunes to purchase and donate lands that eventually composed Acadia National Park.

These philanthropists were also extremely dedicated to the cause of the national parks. Mr. Rockefeller was instrumental in the founding of multiple national parks across the country, protecting special places such as the Grand Tetons, the Great Smokies and Shenandoah. Mr. Dorr tirelessly crusaded to have Acadia accepted by the federal government as a national park, and thanks to his efforts, the park will reach its centennial in 2016.

Today, we need equal dedication by Congress, the president and the American public to ensure that our country continues to set aside important wildlife habitats, open spaces, recreational lands and large undeveloped habitat blocks. This is especially critical as our global climate changes faster than plants and wildlife can adjust. It is also important as our population grows and reaches out to find places for natural quiet and renewal.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund was established nearly a half century ago on the promise that as oil was extracted offshore, a portion of the royalties would be reinvested to help preserve one of America’s other great natural resources, land. Congress was authorized to set aside up to $900 million a year for this program, but appropriations have lagged far behind despite the fact that annual revenues from offshore oil and gas development have been well over $5 billion.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund has been critical for the state of Maine. Each year, a portion of the fund is allocated to federal parks and wildlife refuges to purchase lands from willing sellers that will enhance the intrinsic value of the park or refuge, improve management efficiency and ensure a legacy for future generations.

Acadia National Park, St. Croix International Historic Site and all of Maine’s national wildlife refuges have benefited from this program, and there’s more work to be done. There are approximately 140 remaining privately-held parcels inside Acadia’s boundaries — lands that Congress intended to become part of the park. As these lands become available, private partners such as Friends of Acadia, Maine Coast Heritage Trust and conservation buyers purchase and hold these lands until such time as Land and Water Conservation Fund appropriations enable the National Park Service to permanently incorporate the land into the park.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund not only helps our federal agencies, it provides funding annually for state and local acquisitions for recreation and conservation purposes. Since the fund’s establishment, every county in Maine has benefited — everything from community parks and recreation areas in Houlton and Fort Kent to boat accesses in the Belgrade Lakes to land purchases for Grafton Notch State Park. And I’ll bet that every Maine resident knows of land nearby that they would like to see preserved for forestry, farming, fishing or recreational access.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar have indicated new support for fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Sens. Jeff Bingaman from New Mexico and Max Baucus from Montana have also introduced a bill, The Land and Water Conservation Authorization and Funding Act of 2009, that would guarantee dedicated funding to the program. We encourage all Americans to contact their legislators in support of this bill. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have been supportive of Acadia National Park’s land acquisition needs and this bill would ensure a steadier stream of available funding.

So, as we celebrate National Park Week and Earth Day, please come to Acadia or your favorite outdoor destination in Maine and take a minute to think about how it was established.

Stephanie Clement is conservation director for Friends of Acadia. Friends of Acadia and Acadia National Park are hosting an Earth Day Roadside Clean-up and Junior Ranger Day at Acadia Saturday, April 24. For more information contact Stephanie at 288-3340 or stephanie@friendsofacadia.org.

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