ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, Maine — For the first time since 2005, the number of visitors to Acadia National Park last year topped 2.5 million people, park officials indicated Monday.
Sheridan Steele, superintendent of Acadia, told the park’s citizen advisory commission that the park’s estimated number of visitors in 2010 represents a 14 percent increase over the corresponding figure from 2009. That year, the park’s visitation levels were up 6 percent from 2008, he added.
The highest attendance was in 1989, when 5.44 million visits to the park were recorded, according to National Park Service statistics available online at www.nature.nps.gov.
Steele said he thought that the slumping economy may have contributed to last summer’s high visitation totals. In order to avoid spending money on travel, people in the Northeast likely have been trying to stay closer to home, he said.
“I think 2011 may be stronger [in terms of visitation] than last year,” Steele said.
The increase in visitation in 2010 also was mirrored in ridership for the seasonal Island Explorer bus system, according to Deputy Superintendent Len Bobinchock. The propane-powered buses carried 412,000 people in 2010, an increase of approximately 45,000 riders from the year before.
The system’s average daily ridership in 2010 was 4,829, with a peak day of 8,010 on Aug. 10, Bobinchock said. In 2009 the daily average was 4,238 and a peak on Aug. 11 of 6,639. The bus system is estimated to have carried more than 3 million passengers on and around Mount Desert Island since it debuted in 1999.
But with the higher numbers come more challenges, park officials said.
One of them is how to deal with cruise ship passengers who ride to the top of Cadillac Mountain in tour buses, Steele told the citizen panel. On summer or fall days when two or even three cruise ships visit Bar Harbor, as many as 5,000 cruise ship passengers can hop onto buses and ride into the park, often on similar or identical schedules.
As it did one day last summer, this can result in more than 16 tour buses idling at the top of the mountain at the same time, even though there are only three parking spaces for buses.
“All of them want to go to the top of Cadillac as part of their tour,” Steele said. “This is a huge problem for us.”
Steele said that to address this issue, park staff plan to have spaces for five tour buses at the Cadillac summit this summer and to limit the number of buses that can be on the mountain at a time.
Another issue is the park’s 2010-11 budget, which Congress has yet to approve, officials said. The park is operating under a continuing resolution that froze expenditures at last year’s levels and that is expected to continue for at least another month, but there are rumors that it could last longer.
If the continuing resolution extends into the summer season, it could affect the park’s ability to hire summer staff, Steele said. A flat budget could mean Acadia has to hire fewer seasonal staff this summer than in 2010 because of built-in increases in other parts of the park’s budget, he said.
Last summer, there sometimes were lines out the door of people waiting to ask questions of park staff at the park’s visitors center in Hulls Cove, Steele said. Fewer summer staff could make these lines longer, he said.
Park officials said that as the new Acadia Gateway Center is being built in Trenton, they are starting to consider whether they may want to build a new visitors center or even a new headquarters. The gateway center will be a park and ride, maintenance and storage facility for Island Explorer buses.
Bobinchock said after Monday’s meeting that if a large, centrally located and developed piece of land were to become available, the park might consider building a new operations headquarters and visitors center. He stressed that park officials are just starting to consider this possibility and have not made any decisions about what they may do.
“It’s going to be at least a 10-year planning process,” Bobinchock said.
Among the park’s more immediate projects is renovation of the Rockefeller Building at the Schoodic Education and Research Center, which is undergoing a multimillion-dollar reconstruction to convert it from its former Navy base layout. Park officials said Monday they want to renovate the building, which was built in the 1930s, into a more public-friendly building.
The building, which has an ornate brick-and-wood exterior, is relatively bland on the inside, with small rooms and apartments, but is eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Acadia officials said they want to open up the first floor of the building more and to make it handicapped-accessible. They have been discussing with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission how to do this while at the same time maintaining the historic integrity of the building.
Jim Vekasi, head of the park’s maintenance department, said the park and historic commission have not yet agreed on a final renovation design that pleases all parties. He said the park wants to maintain the building’s historic look, but also wants to renovate it so it will help meet SERC’s current needs.
“Really what we’re talking about is a balance,” Vekasi said. “That’s what is driving this whole thing.”