ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, Maine — How much is too much?
This is a burning question before officials at Acadia National Park, where the growing number of visitors, vehicles and unique activities in the park — occasionally resulting in conflicts — is prompting new regulations inside Maine’s only national park.
According to park officials, visits to Acadia in 2015 are expected to trump last year’s total, which, at more than 2.5 million visits, was the park’s busiest year since 1999. Six times this summer vehicular gridlock at the top of Cadillac Mountain was so bad rangers closed the summit road to incoming traffic.
This summertime crush of vehicles in Acadia is the driving force behind why, for the first time in its 99 years, the park has started work on a long-term traffic management plan.
But vehicle traffic is only one part of the pressure being felt in Acadia. It also stems from an expanded demand for special activities — everything from weddings to dogsledding to filming motorcycle commercials to simple group runs or bicycle rides.
These activities, which deviate from the routine commercial operations, such as bus tours or guided excursions, require special permits to limit their impact on other visitors and the park itself.
A small clash stemming from an unpermitted group event in August — a group run — drew public attention, especially on social media. Park officials since have been reviewing rules about activities that trigger special use permits.
In a rare and unusual move, the park has scheduled a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 19, at park headquarters to discuss new rules for special use permits.
Stuart West, chief ranger for Acadia, declined to comment on the new rules for this story, saying the best approach is to announce them in a group setting, where they can be discussed by interested parties.
The event that triggered attention on activities in Acadia was a group run up the summit road of Cadillac Mountain, organized by Andrew Kephart of Ellsworth. Last year, he organized a similar nighttime run of about 30 people without a permit and thought it would be fun to do it again.
Before starting off this year, however, he and six companions were met at the base of the mountain by a park ranger who wrote him a $175 ticket for not obtaining a special use permit for the activity. Kephart vented about it on Facebook the next day, and the shares, likes and comments on his post piled up.
Park officials faced a wave of criticism and later met with runners and others interested in group activities to hear their concerns. West has indicated he plans to ask federal prosecutors to dismiss Kephart’s citation in order to foster a more cooperative relationship between park officials and community groups who use the park. Kephart declined to comment further for this article.
The experience with Kephart was reminiscent of what occurred with ultramarathoner Scott Jurek on Mount Katahdin. Jurek was ticketed by Baxter State Park rangers after his crowded, champagne-soaked celebration on the summit at the conclusion of his record-breaking run of the Appalachian Trail.
“Most every park must revisit regulations to manage new uses,” West said. “Take, for example, what happened at Baxter State Park this year when [Jurek] celebrated his completion of the trail. No one saw that one coming, right?”
The Jurek case highlighted how growing numbers of AT hikers are putting pressure on Maine’s most well-known state park. In Acadia, however, the pressure is coming from many directions — especially unprecedented new activities.
Going online, outdoors
Acadia park rules require all dogs to be secured on a leash less than 6 feet long. This rule is problematic when people bring dogs into the park for dogsledding or skijoring, which is cross-country skiing while being pulled by a dog on a long lead.
Paddleboarding, snow bicycling, electric bicycles and even downhill skiing and snowboarding on the exposed mountaintops, when conditions allow it, are types of uses not seen in the park 10 years ago, according to West.
In addition to activities that have expanded, he added, interactions between social media and outdoor pursuits have intensified among park visitors, changing the way they experience nature.
“Five years ago, Strava — the app used by bicyclists and runners to record times and distances using GPS — didn’t exist,” West said. “Now the focus is on speed and competition. For the first time ever, during our first car-free morning last spring, we received two complaints from cyclists about the behavior of other cyclists.”
People are recording their Acadia experiences and posting about them on social media, which encourages others to follow suit, he added. Some people have posted videos on YouTube of themselves or others downhill skiing on Cadillac Mountain.
“I would say that social media and YouTube have had the biggest impacts on park use,” West said. “Five years ago, how many visitors did you see wearing a helmet-mounted GoPro? I saw three just last weekend.”
Despite all these new uses, the number of special use permits issued by the park has remained consistent over the past several years. The park issues about 110 such permits each year, West said, not including another 16 or so it issues for special photography or filming projects.
The number of special use permits issued in Acadia may be on the verge of increasing, if Mount Desert High School is any indication. This fall, for the first time, the cross-country running team at the school applied for and received approval to hold practices in the park.
Matthew Haney, principal of the school, said the cross-country team has practiced on the park’s trails and carriage roads for years without any kind of permit. When the furor over Kephart’s citation made headlines in August, he said, the school paid heed and applied for one.
“We probably needed one [in previous years],” Haney said. “We just didn’t know it.”
The team, which has 20 to 25 students, now has official permission to use the carriage roads and most of the park’s hiking trails, too, he said, with the exception of a few that tend to see more hikers than others. Park officials waived the $50 permit fee for the team, he added — something it usually does with school groups.
Haney said he understands why park rangers are using the permit process to try to manage group activities in the park. The goal, he said, is to balance the varying uses so no group or activity unduly interferes with any other allowed use.
“They’re not trying to keep people out,” Haney said. “They just don’t want people bumping into each other.”
David MacDonald, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Friends of Acadia, said the park is grappling with these issues during a period when funding for national parks is declining. So while it’s good that more people are using Acadia in a variety of ways, he said, it presents an escalating challenge for park rangers and other staff.
“They have fewer dollars and fewer people to work on this,” MacDonald said. “It is making the park staff’s job harder.”
Some people who have drawn the rangers’ notice may feel singled out, he said, but it’s hard to strike a balance with on-the-spot decisions about some types of new activities that may fall into a gray area of the park rules. The requirement to obtain permits, he said, is not an effort to discourage any particular activity but striking that balance.
“The park is managing for dozens and dozens of uses that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” MacDonald said.
According to West, a team of veteran Acadia employees revisits park regulations every year to discuss possible changes or clarifications.
To the extent that its mission and resources allow, West said national parks adapt to meet changing pressures and demands while trying to ensure a minimum of harm to park resources or visitors.
For example, the National Park Service decided to ban the use of remote-controlled aircraft, such as drones, within all national parks. The devices were deemed by park officials to have a negative impact on park visitors looking to connect with nature.
“People have changed over time. It’s a sliding scale,” West said. “We want people to have the most enjoyable experience [in Acadia] they can have.”