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September 21, 2018

As Acadia visitation rises, maintenance backlog looms

Photo / Laurie Schreiber
Photo / Laurie Schreiber
At Acadia National Park, government and park officials and members of the Bar Harbor community toured park facilities to view the deteriorating conditions.

Acadia National Park visitorship on the rise

In 2017, Acadia had 3.5 million visitors, up from 3.3 million the previous year, according to the park service. Through Aug. 30 this year, Acadia had 2.39 million visitors, up from 2.34 million through the first eight months of last year.

As the number of visitors to Acadia National Park continues to rise, park officials say there's an ever-greater urgency to address the park's backlog of maintenance on basic infrastructure, ranging from maintenance buildings to visitor restrooms.

At a media event held Sept. 20 at the park's headquarters in Bar Harbor, park officials and members of Bar Harbor's business and nonprofit community said additional funding, now pending in a bill that's moving through Congress, is essential to ensure that visitors keep coming back. They said the park's funding does not meet its needs for capital improvements, including basic infrastructure.

"Acadia has been pretty busy in the last few years. We've seen a 59% increase in visitation over the last 10 years," Acadia Superintendent Kevin Schneider said in his remarks at the event. "That is a great thing to have. But we need to be prepared to welcome them. And that means infrastructure."

In 2017, Acadia had 3.5 million visitors, up from 3.3 million the previous year, according to the park service. Through Aug. 30 this year, Acadia had 2.39 million visitors, up from 2.34 million through the first eight months of last year.

King behind an effort to increase funding

Thursday's event was hosted by U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and other federal and state legislators or their designees. King, who is running for re-election, is a lead sponsor of legislation to address a nearly $12 billion maintenance backlog throughout the national park system. Acadia's backlog is estimated to be $60 million.

Even the park's own maintenance facility is in need of serious maintenance, said Mack Weaver, who is buildings and utility foreman. On a tour, he pointed out problems like cracks in the building, and plywood doors and single-pane windows that are inadequate for winter's chill. The storage area is too small for needs that range from snowplow equipment to toilet paper, said Schneider. It also lacks basic compliance features like handicap-accessibility, he said.

"We need to have clean restrooms, a good visitor center, good roads, good trails, good carriage roads," Schneider said.

Acadia has 452,000 square feet of building space, 86 miles of roads, 17 public water systems, 158 miles of hiking trails, 45 miles of carriage roads and four campgrounds.

"Much of our deferred maintenance is below the surface of what visitors see," Schneider said. "It's things like this maintenance building, like the culverts below the roads, like the wastewater system. Visitors use them, but don't see them."

Some of the assets, like the maintenance building and nearby administration building, need to be replaced, he said.

"They're undersized for the level of visitation we see today," Schneider said. "This building was built in the 1960s and was not designed for the 3.5 million visitors we see today. And they've deteriorated to a point where it no longer makes sense to invest in them."

Acadia's nonprofit fundraising partner, Friends of Acadia, has been key to attracting donations for deferred maintenance on infrastructure like trails, he said.

"But donors expect the federal government to do its fair share," Schneider said. "And it's clear that donors are not likely to invest in a maintenance building. Donors want to address things like hiking trails and carriage roads."

Park needs to leverage private investment

Friends of Acadia President David MacDonald said the pending legislation is encouraging.

"I believe it will result in excitement and investment on the private side," MacDonald said. "From our point of view, the visitor experience is so important. If these facilities aren't maintained, that will diminish the visitor experience, and the ripple effect on the economy will be dramatic. The park has done an amazing job on a shoestring, but we don't want that shoestring to break."

Jena Young, owner of the popular Side Street Café in Bar Harbor, and Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, director of the Abbe Museum, which has sites both in Bar Harbor and at Acadia's Sieur de Monts Spring, agreed there was potential for a negative ripple effect if maintenance projects are not adequately addressed.

"As the facilities that surround Sieur de Monts age, you can feel it," said Catlin-Legutko, "and our building there is aging, too."

Age-related problems of a tourist attraction like the Abbe Museum at Sieur de Monts, said Young, has the potential to impact the business community.

"It hits the Abbe and it will trickle and Acadia will start to have a bad reputation," said Young. "But we're not there yet, so I love that they're ahead of the game, trying to fix this before it's detrimental to the economy."

"It's huge," Martha Searchfield, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said of the potential funding. "The park has to run smoothly and it has to look perfect, because that's what visitors want and that's what this place is. "

In his remarks, King said, "This is a moment in time, right now, when we can do something about this problem."

According to a press release from King's office, the bill, called the Restore Our Parks Act, was introduced in the Senate by King and U.S. Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) The act would establish the "National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund" to reduce the maintenance backlog by allocating existing revenues the government receives from on- and offshore energy development.

A companion bill, the Restore our Parks and Public Lands Act, has been introduced in the House.

Speaking at the event, Acting National Park Service Director Dan Smith explained the bill would provide $1.3 billion per year for five years to address major maintenance projects throughout the NPS.

The parks have not yet been prioritized for funding, Smith said. Although the nation's larger parks have considerable need, he said, "We're going to make sure we have a program that also takes care of other parks that are maybe not as a large," like Acadia, he said.

King noted the revenues would not be tax-funded, but funded from fees paid to the federal government for utilization of federal lands for uses like mineral extraction.

"We're hoping to move the bill this year," King added.

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