We do our best in the tourism community of Bar Harbor to welcome visitors, orient them to Acadia National Park and the surrounding region, and encourage a return visit to Maine. This year, however, has been particularly challenging to Bar Harbor’s business community, particularly the lodging sector, because of the effects of the government shutdown and the federal sequester.
While the park usually experiences a rush of visitors over Columbus Day weekend, this year was different. The government shutdown forced national parks across the country to close their gates. Acadia’s rangers took a reasonable approach, informing visitors that the park was closed, but only ticketing those who drove past the barriers, destroyed park property, illegally camped or committed other egregious violations. The Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, Friends of Acadia and local business owners also did their best to entice visitors to come here by advertising all the things that one can do in the region outside the park such as boat tours, museums, trails and more.
Despite these efforts, however, the economic and social losses during the first two weeks of October were significant. Because of the shutdown, the phones stopped ringing at local hotels. Visitors from China who had planned to visit multiple national parks on their trip to America were disappointed not to be able to drive to Cadillac Mountain, see the Liberty Bell or tour the Smithsonian. One hotel in the Bar Harbor area reported a loss of $33,000, while another reported as many as 182 room cancellations.
Even before the shutdown, though, Acadia’s budget and the local economy were strained by cuts stemming from the federal budget sequestration. According to the National Park Service, this year alone, 12 seasonal jobs were cut entirely at the park, 31 more were reduced, and 23 vacant permanent positions were left open. Because of reduced staffing, Acadia National Park had to delay the full opening of the Park Loop Road last spring by about a month. This had a significant negative effect on business during the early spring with many Bar Harbor businesses reporting a 30 percent decline in revenues during this time period.
National parks have seen their funding erode for years and are now operating at 2002 funding levels. Over the past three years, their operating budgets have been cut by 13 percent, or $315 million in today’s dollars. Acadia has lost almost $1.4 million from its operating budget since fiscal year 2010.
The Bar Harbor business community is very concerned about these declines and the prospect of additional cuts through the sequester this year. If Acadia National Park could not fully open the Park Loop Road for a month this past year, what will happen next year if budget cuts are compounded? How do lodging businesses make advanced reservations for visitors when they are uncertain whether the national park will be fully open? The economic prosperity of Bar Harbor is inextricably tied to the fate of park budgets.
There is — right now — an opportunity to restore the park funding that is essential to the economy of Bar Harbor and the upkeep Acadia, one of Maine’s most important tourism assets. With the congressional budget conference committee facing a Dec. 13 compromise deadline, and our own Sen. Angus King among its members, Congress must come together and restore funding to our national parks. Americans all across the country agree. A recent poll conducted for the Center for American Progress showed that 74 percent of the public — regardless of party affiliation — oppose additional spending cuts to our parks and public lands.
It’s time for Congress to realize that cuts to park funding undermine the stability of our local communities where parks have consistently shown a strong return on investment. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, every dollar invested in the National Park Service generates $10 in economic activity. National parks support more than a quarter million jobs total, and Acadia’s visitors are estimated to contribute more than $186 million annually to the local economy.
In reality, national parks pose an insignificant cost to American taxpayers. The average American household pays $2.56 in taxes each year for the National Park Service to operate — a little more than a cup of coffee at Starbucks. I urge Congress to transcend the dysfunctional budget process and restore national park funding, which has such a large impact on local economies such as Bar Harbor’s.
Chris Fogg is the executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce and member of the board of directors of Friends of Acadia, the Maine Tourism Association, and Downeast and Acadia Regional Tourism.