November 12, 2019
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Acadia has a congestion problem, and the park’s trying to fix it

Bill Trotter | BDN
Bill Trotter | BDN
Visitors to Acadia National Park in Maine gather along the shore next to Thunder Hole on Sept. 6, 2016.

Last year Acadia National Park celebrated 100 years of operation, with hundreds of special events hosted in and around the park. So it came as no surprise to park administration when Acadia saw its busiest season yet in 2016, with an all-time high of 3.3 million visits.

Now in the wake of the centennial, park staff are catching their collective breath and moving forward with plans to make the Acadia experience more enjoyable — and less congested — for visitors.

“How people get into and move throughout the park is our biggest management challenge and has the greatest sort of impact on what we call the visitor experience,” Acadia National Park Management Assistant John Kelly said.

Park administration is currently creating a new transportation plan, an idea that began to take shape back in 2015 and is scheduled to be finalized by spring of 2018.

The new plan may include reserved or metered parking for Acadia’s most crowded parking lots — such as the lots atop Cadillac Mountain and at Sand Beach — as well as changes for the park’s many entrances and exits and an expansion of the existing Island Explorer bus service. The public can view the different options being considered online here.

“We’re looking at a very big picture and looking to develop solutions that really get to the issues that we have now with congestion, safety and the ability for people to really enjoy the park without being distracted by trying to find a parking space or having to park in an unsafe location or damaging roadside resources,” Kelly said.

On the top 10 most visited national parks list, Acadia came in eighth last year. However, Acadia is much smaller, geographically, than any other park that made that list.

“If you look at it as visit per acre, we are far and beyond the most densely used or heavily used park,” Kelly said.

Last year, Acadia saw roughly 67 visits per acre. Coming in second for visits per acre was Zion National Park with 29 visits per acre.

Acadia management is hoping that the new transportation plan will help lessen congestion within the park by spreading visitors out and preventing overcrowding in certain areas.

“Things aren’t going to change overnight,” Kelly said. “There will be the issue of more detailed planning. So when all the planning is said and done, we’ll have more planning to do.”

Approximately 20 people make up the team that is preparing the plan, Kelly said, and the majority of that team is Acadia staff based in Maine, with a few people from the National Park Service Denver Service Center in Colorado, and contracted consultants.

“Acadia is an extremely tough park to manage access to,” said Kelly. “We’re dispersed over so many islands and Schoodic [Peninsula], and if you just took MDI itself, that in itself is a puzzle of park lands mixed in with four different towns, and state and local roads mixing with park owned roads.”

Taking into account all hiking trails, carriage roads and roads open to vehicles, Acadia has roughly 50 points of entry on Mount Desert Island alone, Kelly said, with 11 points of entrance for vehicles on the Park Loop Road.

To help inform and develop this new transportation plan, the National Park Service recently announced that it’s hiring up to five visitor service assistants to help manage traffic and parking at the busiest location in Acadia National Park this summer and fall.

“We look forward to having visitor service assistants available at key locations in the park this

summer and fall to help manage traffic and improve the experience of visitors,” said Acadia National Park Superintendent Kevin Schneider in a prepared statement. “By committing park staff to this effort, we hope to better understand the issues and generate ideas for managing traffic and parking through the Transportation Plan.”

The park also plans to get plenty of public feedback before finalizing the plan. Already, there have been two formal public feedback sessions to collect ideas for the new plan, and a third public feedback session will take place sometime in the future, Kelly said.

“People feel so strongly about national parks,” Kelly said. “We take it extremely seriously and it absolutely does influence the things we do and how we do them.”

A chief concern voiced by local residents is how a new transportation plan may limit their access to certain areas of the park.

“Some residents in the local communities want to keep things the way they are, to have the same spontaneous access as they do now, and that’s challenging because we’re a National Park System. We have to treat visitors equally and fairly,” Kelly said. “We can’t favor or differentiate necessarily between people who live near the park and someone who lives in Bangor and someone who lives in California. That is something we have heard loud and clear, and we’re looking at ways to ease any change for local residents.”

“It will take time for people to adjust,” he added. “We’re looking at other national parks that have done this and there’s always a transition time.”

In developing the plan, park management is also looking at how different changes will impact the local economy. They’re also planning to conduct environmental impact studies that will give them an idea about how different changes in park transportation might affect the park’s natural resources.

“We’re in the process of preparing alternatives, which are more formal and established sets of management strategies that will again go out to the public for a third formal round of public input,” Kelly said.

In the meantime, traffic will continue to be managed as it has in past years.

Acadia National Park will open the Park Loop Road on Mount Desert Island to motor vehicles on Saturday, April 15, to begin the summer season at the park. The Hulls Cove Visitor Center, Thompson Island Picnic Area, and Echo Lake Beach will also open on that date.

Admission to Acadia will be free that weekend, April 15 and 16, and the following weekend, April 22 and 23, in celebration of National Park Week.

The NPS will continue to open other park facilities, including restrooms, campgrounds and picnic areas, throughout May in preparation for the summer season. For updates on the opening of facilities at the park, visit www.nps.gov/acad/planyourvisit/hours or call 207-288-3338.

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