ACADIA NATIONAL PARK — After 12 years as superintendent of Acadia and 38 years with the National Park Service, Sheridan Steele is retiring. In a recent interview, Steele said he plans to stay involved in Maine but as a volunteer not as an official.
When Steele was named superintendent in 2003, he was attending the Senior Executive Institute in Charlottesville, Va., – a seminar for federal employees. For Steele, that program reinforced his ideas about leadership. “Management is about doing things right. Leadership is doing the right thing, what I’d call focus or priorities. It’s a matter of looking at things not how they are, but what they might be and then determining how to get there.”
And this type of leadership has defined his career in the National Park Service. In 1982 when he was superintendent of Fort Scott National Historic Site, Steele raised $110,000 to buy period costumes, a replica of the cannon, a freight wagon and furnishings. These were essential in interpreting the history of Fort Scott. In 1842, Fort Scott’s mission was to protect a permanent boundary for Indian nations. But with the Gold Rush and westward expansion, that boundary disintegrated.
While Steele was superintendent, Fort Scott had the second largest volunteer program in that region of the National Park Service. Both raising funds and achieving this level of volunteerism came in a town with a population of 9,000.
In 1997, Steele became superintendent of Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a national monument that became a national park under Steele’s tenure. Prior to Steele’s arriving at Black Canyon, there had been several unsuccessful efforts to make it a national park. Because the plan called for including 50,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands – something BLM opposed – the Department of Interior could not testify in favor of making Black Canyon a national park. Steele developed a new approach that improved protection of the canyon. Rather than incorporating BLM land into the park, Steele, with funding from the Conservation Fund, purchased conservation easements on 3,000 acres of critical, private land downstream of the canyon. “By getting the various parties to agree, we not only were able to move the national park status forward but ensured better protection for the canyon,” said Steele.
“Sheridan brought this same style of leadership to Acadia,” said David MacDonald, president of Friends of Acadia (FOA). The former director of land protection at Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT) worked closely with Steele during his entire 12-year stint at Acadia. “He really set the tone from day one when he put together a team of partners to pursue an important property that was on the market when he first arrived – the former Pooler Farm on Northeast Creek,” MacDonald said.
“This was the beginning of a new level of focus and commitment from the park, working to complete its boundary through land acquisition.”
The progress has been impressive: 31 tracts of land have been conserved as a result of the partnership spearheaded by Steele.
Shortly after Steele arrived, he outlined his priorities: obtaining inholdings (private property within the park’s boundary), converting the former Navy base into the Schoodic Education and Research Center (SERC), engaging more youth in Acadia and ensuring a quality visitor experience.
In 2003, there were 20 tracts on the market. With support from partners – FOA, MCHT and Elliotsville Plantation – the park acquired not only those tracts but an additional 11.
“In 2002, SERC was an array of facilities that potentially could have drained the park’s budget,” said Steele. “What we had to focus on was ensuring that SERC would be a success and sustainable. We had a great partner in the Schoodic Institute [the nonprofit group that oversees funding and programming] and were able not only to develop programs and activities but to secure partnerships with universities, colleges and schools. We needed these kinds of partners to make SERC viable.”
With $22 million – $10 million from stimulus money, $10 million from park revenue and maintenance funds, and $2 million in donations – the park successfully has converted the former Navy base into a viable campus.
To get more children outdoors and to involve youth in Acadia, Steele advocated for increasing the number of youth programs and initiatives. In addition to the Acadia Youth Conservation Corps and FOA’s Ridge Runners, the park and FOA developed a tech team comprised of high school and college students involved in using technology to enhance the visitor experience. In the Wild Gardens of Acadia, for example, the team has placed signs with QR codes at the entrances to the gardens and by the fern area so that visitors can learn more about ferns.
Eight teachers participated last year in the Teacher-Ranger-Teacher program. This FOA-funded program allows teachers to spend six weeks as rangers. Working with park staff, they lead interpretative programs, develop curriculum and write lessons plans on incorporating field-based data into science lessons and integrating field visits into classroom art and science activities. Not only are these lesson plans shared with other teachers, but they are distributed nationwide.
Other youth initiatives included hosting a group of students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. They updated night sky data and mapped views along the South Ridge Trail of Cadillac.
The park and FOA sponsored Acadia Quest and challenged families to participate – a quest that involves completing activities on trails, carriage roads, ponds and lakes, and at Acadia’s cultural sites. In 2015, a new version was introduced to accommodate families here for a short time.
Calling the growing popularity of Acadia a serious challenge, Steele feels he has had only mixed success in improving the quality of the visitor experience. In 2014, visitation increased by 12 percent. Incomplete data show an additional 8 percent increase this season. “Our budget is going down, and the demand for services is going up. Maintaining a quality visitor experience is a real problem,” said Steele. He cited closing access to the summit of Cadillac and traffic jams as primary reasons for conducting a transportation study. That study is designed to come up with new ways of dealing with a larger number of vehicles.
“Several of my goals were wrapped into one with the development of Schoodic Woods, for me a major accomplishment,” said Steele. “A family in Italy owned 3,000 acres on which they wanted to develop three major resorts with up to 800 villas. Being able to purchase that land with conservation partners was a huge victory.”
Dedicated in September, Schoodic Woods, which is being managed by the park, includes a visitor center designed to meet park standards. It has fewer than 100 campsites, a bike trail that cuts across the peninsula to connect both portions of the one-way loop road, 8.5 miles of bike paths, 4.5 miles of new hiking trails and a 100-car parking lot for day use.
“For the local economy, it is the best of both worlds,” said Steele. “Rather than spending two to three hours on average at Schoodic, visitors will now spend two to four days. The quality of the development is excellent, and Schoodic Woods is a spectacular gift to the American people.”