Tuesday, Aug. 25, is the 99th birthday of the National Park Service, and our Acadia celebrated its 99th in July. Take a moment to sing happy birthday to “America’s best idea.”
Think of the spectacular places the park service manages for us — from Yellowstone to Yosemite, the Great Smoky Mountains to the Grand Canyon, the Everglades to the North Cascades. National parks are for all Americans and a magnet for visitors from around the world. Go to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia and you will hear many a foreign tongue.
Acadia hosted 2.5 million visits last year. People enjoyed the views, trails, carriage roads, beaches, forests, lakes, birds and other wildlife, and blueberries. Many headed into nearby towns to find lodging, buy a good meal, shop for gifts, or attend a concert, exhibit or lecture. So many visited Mount Desert Island in early August that some had to switch from inn to inn to find beds on successive nights. Others had to return to the mainland for accommodations. Some park visitors flew in and out of Bangor, dropping dollars there and en route to Mount Desert Island.
These park-driven activities translate into economic gains for communities. The beneficiaries range from small bed-and-breakfasts and bike and kayak rentals to big restaurants, stores and inns. Acadia visitors spent $221 million in 2014, a slug of cash that supported 3,486 jobs — for inn owners and workers, guides who take people on kayaking, biking or boat trips to see seals and watch whales, managers of larger establishments, and waiters who serve Maine lobster and collect tips. Morning to night, the island bustles with commerce.
Compare that to the Katahdin region where, even in high summer, parking spaces are little used, restaurants struggle to stay open and galleries remain seldom visited. Lodges would love to see some of the 99 percent occupancy levels like those that characterize Acadia in full swing.
Why the difference? The Katahdin area boasts natural amenities as spectacular as Acadia’s, but different — enticing views of Maine’s highest mountain, uninterrupted forests to the horizon, magnificent rivers with rapids and waterfalls, mountains and trails, raspberries and blueberries, moose and loons.
One problem is the North Woods are more distant from population and business hubs. (For that matter, so is Yellowstone.) But the biggest economic difference: Acadia is a national park.
Think of what a national park abutting Baxter State Park could do. It would formally protect the East Branch of the Penobscot for anglers and whitewater and quiet-water paddlers. It would preserve the story of the Wabanaki and their multi-generation occupancy of the land. It would provide trails up lovely mountains with magnificent views of Katahdin, the northern Maine mountains and endless forests beyond. It would celebrate logging history. It could provide a fabulous biking experience on the park’s loop road. And it would provide opportunities for people the world over to see a moose. And that’s just in the summer.
Fall visitors would enjoy the crisp air, the riot of forests colors stretching to the horizon, the night skies flush with stars and, in an adjacent recreation area, hunting, an honored tradition. Winter, too, would attract visitors who snowshoe and cross-country ski on silent snowy trails, or explore the brilliant landscape on a snowmobile in the recreation area.
Visitors to the new park would bring economic benefits of the kind they bring to Acadia, though the economic boost will not equal Acadia’s. There will likely not be a boom, but there will be no bust either. The economic effects will grow continuously and last forever — because national parks are forever.
About half of Acadia’s annual use comprises repeat visitors. Many people who love our protected natural and cultural assets are “park baggers.” They accumulate national parks the way boys collect baseball cards or birders develop a life list. It is not unreasonable to think a new North Woods National Park will experience repeat visitation, albeit at a lesser rate, and will draw not only Acadia veterans but national and worldwide park collectors.
In 2015, the 99th year of the National Park Service and Acadia, we have the opportunity to create the nation’s next national park with all the conservation, recreation, economic and community status benefits it would produce. Wouldn’t it be perfect to celebrate, in 2016, the dual centennial with a new national park and recreation area in Maine’s North Woods?
U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin could make it happen. What a grand triple birthday that would be.
Lisa Pohlmann is executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. She lives in Jefferson. Ken Olson, a Bass Harbor resident, is retired president and CEO of Friends of Acadia and chairs the Acadia National Park Maine-wide Centennial Working Group. His opinions are his own.