June 26, 2019
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Taking care of Acadia is a wise investment

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

Summer is winding down at Acadia National Park, and we’re on track to break another annual visitation record. It’s understandable why millions of visitors from across the globe come here — dramatic coastal scenery, granite mountains, 152 miles of historic trails, 45 miles of carriage roads, rich cultural history and small New England villages that offer diverse options for lodging, restaurants and activities. A recent estimate of Acadia’s economic impact on our communities found that visitor spending topped $284 million last year, making possible more than 4,163 jobs with a labor income more than $107 million.

Visitation has increased 58 percent over the last decade at Acadia, yet the park’s inflation-adjusted budget is down approximately 12 percent since 2010, when its budget peaked. When you compound rising visitation with decreasing budgets, limited park staff and aging infrastructure, park facilities are on a path toward inevitable decline and disrepair. Acadia National Park staff take care of 128 miles of paved and unpaved roads, 44 bridges, 162 vehicles, 175 buildings and 620 campsites. Such extensive infrastructure naturally requires annual upkeep and a lot of money.

Much of Acadia’s $59.9 million deferred maintenance backlog is invisible to the average visitor. The park service does its best on a limited budget to provide a positive visitor experience, so visitor facilities are naturally going to receive highest priority in replacement and repairs. But did you know that the park’s primary maintenance facilities — the automobile shop, storage bays, maintenance offices, plumbing and electrical shop, and more — are literally cracked down the middle? Losing these structures to a strong wind or snow storm would cripple the park’s ability to properly take care of vehicles and other essential equipment, and store basic items such as toilet paper and first aid supplies. And this is just one example of the maintenance backlog at Acadia.

Friends of Acadia helps address some of the maintenance backlog by providing annual grants for the trails and carriage roads. In 2017, we granted $340,000 to the trails program and $220,000 to the carriage road crews. Friends of Acadia’s contributions are secure, steady and nimble, giving the National Park Service the ability to plan maintenance projects with appropriate crew sizes, equipment and materials. However, our private funds are intended to supplement, not replace the fundamental responsibility of Congress to maintain these national treasures.

Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins deserve our thanks for their leadership in helping advance the fight against the deferred maintenance backlog by co-sponsoring S 3172, the Restore Our Parks Act. This bipartisan bill would direct up to 50 percent of unallocated energy development revenues (up to $1.3 billion annually to fiscal year 2023) to national parks to address their greatest backlog maintenance projects. A similar bill ( HR 6510) has been introduced in the House and co-sponsored by Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin. These proposals, combined with philanthropic and volunteer support from partners like Friends of Acadia and park entrance fee revenues retained locally for projects, will go a long way to addressing the highest priority infrastructure needs.

While the current administration has been laser-focused on the parks’ deferred maintenance woes and has succeeded in raising public awareness of the challenge, Congress and the administration must not ignore park operations. It makes no sense to rehabilitate a building if there are not enough funds and employees to maintain it and prevent it from simply slipping back onto the deferred maintenance list. With an annual federal appropriation of just $8 million, Acadia is dramatically underfunded in its struggle to keep up with day-to-day operations.

Acadia was established through the extraordinary efforts and donations of private individuals more than 100 years ago. Friends of Acadia is proud to continue that tradition today, thanks to the commitment of our membership and partners. Our contributions are only possible and viable, however, as an added “margin of excellence” to the vital role of the federal government to fund the basic operations and upkeep of national parks like Acadia. It is hard to think of a better investment for the future health, well-being and prosperity of our communities and nation.

David MacDonald is president and CEO of Friends of Acadia, a nonprofit organization in Bar Harbor whose mission is to preserve, protect and promote stewardship of the outstanding natural beauty, ecological vitality and distinctive cultural resources of Acadia National Park and the surrounding communities for the inspiration and enjoyment of current and future generations.

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