ACADIA NATIONAL PARK — The Acadia Advisory Commission has suggested that the National Park Service’s (NPS) recent annexation of land on the Schoodic Peninsula, including the new Schoodic Woods campground, may have skirted a 1986 law.
Commission Chairman Steve Katona has written to Acadia Deputy Superintendent Mike Madell expressing concern about the way in which the park boundary was expanded.
Katona said in the Dec. 7 letter that some members of the commission, which is a citizens’ advisory panel established by Congress, “have questioned whether the change is legal and whether it sets a precedent for other annexations that could occur in the future.”
The NPS posted a notice in the Federal Register on Nov. 17 that as of that date, Acadia’s boundary was modified to include 1,441 acres adjacent to the existing Schoodic section of the park. The notice stated that the boundary change was made “pursuant to appropriate authorities.”
Asked for more specifics, an NPS official cited a provision of a 1929 law that authorized the Secretary of the Interior to accept “lands, easements and buildings as may be donated for the extension of Acadia National Park, lying within the bounds of Hancock County,” as well as certain Knox County islands in Penobscot Bay.
However, some Advisory Commission members and others have opined that a 1986 law that established Acadia’s “permanent” boundaries superseded the 1929 law. The park’s own General Management Plan states that the 1986 law “defined a permanent boundary and gave the National Park Service authority to acquire lands, but only within the designated boundary.”
Katona’s letter to Madell requests that the NPS provide “a thorough explanation of the authority used [in acquiring the Schoodic land], the legal opinion supporting it and assurance that the process does not subvert the intention of the 1986 act and will not form a precedent for future land acquisitions.”
The 1986 law that established the park’s boundary also created the Acadia Advisory Commission for the purpose of advising the NPS “on matters relating to the management and development of the park.”
In an exchange of emails over the past three weeks, several commission members have said they believe the park’s boundary can be changed only by an act of Congress. Longtime member Ben Emory, whose reappointment had not yet been confirmed, said the commission should demand an explanation of the rationale for the Schoodic acquisition.
“Government should be transparent if we citizens are to trust it,” Emory wrote. “Avoiding explanation of what at least on the surface would appear to be illegal is the opposite of transparent.”
He said that like nearly everyone else, he agrees that the Schoodic property would be a wonderful addition to the park. But he worries that the way in which the NPS has handled it could damage the park’s friendly relations with its neighbors.
“I think this may be the most important issue to come before the commission since its establishment,” Emory wrote.
Katona, in his letter to Madell, also addressed the issue of Acadia’s relationship with its neighbors.
“Prior to 1986, relations between the park and its surrounding towns and citizens were fragile,” he wrote. “Towns could see no limit to the park’s ability to acquire land and remove it from local tax rolls.”
He said relations have improved steadily over the past 29 years.
“While encouraging addition of the Schoodic Woods land to the park, the commission advises the National Park Service to not jeopardize the local trust that has taken so long to build,” Katona wrote.
“The necessity of addressing this issue quickly cannot be overstated,” he added.
Matt Horton said in an email to fellow commission members that the commission “needs to ensure that the law is followed and that precedent is not set.”
“I don’t think we’d be fulfilling our roles if we simply accepted all this at face value.”
Ken Smith, another commission member, said the NPS should “go back to Congress to have the boundary changed correctly.”
“Finding ways to go around the law is not acceptable.”
Ken Cline, who has been nominated to serve on the Advisory Commission, said in an email that the commission should ask the NPS to withdraw its acquisition of the Schoodic land and instead seek Congressional approval for the expansion.
“Even if there is a defensible legal basis for the action, the political damage done by proceeding administratively makes me feel like the legislative route is preferable,” he wrote.
Cline is professor of environmental law and policy at College of the Atlantic.
Commission members Dexter Lee and Fred Ehrlenbach also have questioned the legality of the Schoodic acquisition.
The Acadia Advisory Commission has 16 members: three appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, three by the governor of Maine and one each by the towns of Bar Harbor, Mount Desert, Southwest Harbor, Tremont, Trenton, Cranberry Isles, Frenchboro, Swans Island, Gouldsboro and Winter Harbor.
In his letter to Madell on behalf of the commission, Katona said a complete explanation of the NPS’s annexation of the Schoodic property “is essential for enabling the commission to fulfill its responsibility of advising the National Park Service as well as delivering timely and substantive information to the towns that members represent.”
Katona has sent copies of the letter to Maine’s Congressional delegation.
The property on the Schoodic Peninsula that the NPS acquired was purchased in 2011 by Schoodic Woods LLC. That corporation, established by Lyme Timber Company and a private family foundation, built the campground, along with several miles of hiking trails and bike paths.
The campground, which opened Sept. 1, was built to NPS standards, and Acadia has been operating it. This past summer, Schoodic Woods LLC donated the property to the National Park Foundation, a nonprofit partner of the NPS, with the understanding that ownership would be transferred to Acadia.