December 10, 2018
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Why Acadia’s maintenance ‘to-do’ list keeps growing

Bill Trotter | BDN
Bill Trotter | BDN
Max Wither raises his hand to yell through the trees to Mike Soriano as Chris Fabian mans a gas-powered capstan winch in the background on July 18, 2018. The park trail crew was moving boulders up the slope on Valley Cove Trail on the eastern face of St. Sauveur Mountain, which has been closed while waiting on needed maintenance.

ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, Maine — Maine’s only national park has a to-do list of maintenance projects that’s more than 350 items long, with a total price tag of about $59.8 million.

Every year the dollar figure attached to that list — which includes building repairs, cleaning culverts, road projects and more — changes slightly due to projected costs. For instance, last year it was $71 million, and in 2015 it was $68.3 million — but no one expects to complete all the projects.

That’s because deferred maintenance is a perennial issue at Acadia and other National Park Service properties across the country, which cumulatively have more than $11 billion worth of overdue work to maintain their facilities and infrastructure. The backlog of projects have become a cause of concern because of the tourism economies that develop around park service properties.

Despite Acadia’s sizeable impact on Maine’s summertime tourist economy, which is estimated to be close to $300 million, the park is unable to keep up with needed work.

Keith Johnston, the park’s head of facilities maintenance, said his current list of projects ranges in cost from a few thousand dollars to several million dollars. Some have been approved for funding by the park service but most have not due to the shortage of available funds.

Earlier this summer, U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine and other U.S. senators submitted a bill aimed at raising money to address the issue, while President Donald Trump has proposed paying for park repairs with revenue derived from energy produced on federal lands and waters.

One that has not gotten the green light is the biggest priority on Johnston’s list: replacing the aging maintenance operations building at the park’s headquarters on Eagle Lake Road. According to Johnston, the projected cost of constructing a new maintenance operations building is $20 million. The current one, built in the mid-1950s, is “beyond repair,” he said — largely because of relative lack of work that has been done on it over the decades.

Bill Trotter | BDN
Bill Trotter | BDN
Acadia's primary maintenance building, which was built in the 1950s, has cracks in its cinder block walls and a roof with structural deficiencies, according to the park official who runs the maintenance department. Replacing the building, which is projected to cost $20 million, is at the top of the park's wish list for addressing deferred maintenance.

“We’ve been asking for [a new maintenance building] for 24 years,” Johnston said recently, sitting at a small table in his office in the aging building. “The masonry blocks that hold the walls up have turned back to sand in many places. The building has a crack that runs down the middle of it from one end to the other.”

He said that in 2013, the roof on the long low building — which is a series of rooms or garage bays laid out in a line — was determined to be structurally insufficient for supporting heavy snow.

“It makes me nervous in the winter,” Johnston said. “It’s time to recognize when things are at the end of their life cycle.”

Johnston said that though the issue of deferred maintenance at national parks recently has gotten a lot of attention, the situation now is decidedly better than it was in the 1980s.

Acadia now gets to put 55 percent of the money it collects in entrance fees toward maintenance projects, he said, and private funding from sources like Friends of Acadia have proven to be a big help.

In 2017, for example, the friends group donated more than $1.5 million in grants to the park, with more than half a million dollars going to fund trail and carriage road maintenance.

In the early 1980s, Acadia didn’t have any entrance fees or private funding that it could use to supplement whatever money was appropriated and sent from Washington.

“It was worse,” Johnston said of the park’s physical state 30 years ago. “The carriage roads were impassable. They were so overgrown you couldn’t ride your bike on them. They are leagues above where they were.”

Among projects that have been approved by the park service for funding are planned interior improvements to the Visitors Center in Hulls Cove, including some asbestos abatement, and an upgrade the power supply to the Schoodic Education and Research Center — two projects that rank directly behind the maintenance building proposal in terms of priority, according to Johnston. Projects to install a new roof and furnace at the Islesford Historical Museum and to reconstruct the carriage loop road around Eagle Lake also have been approved.

Last month, the park began work on repairing Lurvey Spring Road, which washed out in a heavy rainstorm this past winter after culverts had not been kept clean.

“Those culverts weren’t cleaned on time, on schedule” due to funding shortfalls in the park’s annual operating budget, Johnston said. “That’s where you see the cumulative effect of deferred maintenance piling up.”

Johnston said he has submitted a request to park service officials in Boston and Washington for funding to construct a new maintenance building and hopes to find out in the next eight months if it will be approved. If it is, he said, it likely would take another five years for a new building to be designed and constructed.

“Administrative facilities are hard to get funded,” Johnston said. “We do spend a lot of energy keeping the stuff that most visitors interact with in good condition. It’s the stuff that is slightly out of sight that needs attention. Most of what the visitor sees is in pretty good shape.”

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