By Dick Broom and Liz Graves
ACADIA NAT’L PARK — A proposal by the National Park Service (NPS) to sharply increase entrance fees during the peak visitor season at Acadia and 16 other national parks is being criticized by some people with close ties to the park.
The NPS last week announced it is considering more than doubling — and in some cases nearly tripling — entrance fees during each park’s five busiest months to help fund the growing backlog of maintenance projects in the parks.
For Acadia, the price of a seven-day entrance pass for a private vehicle would go from $25 to $70.
Jackie Johnston, chairman of the Acadia Advisory Commission, said the proposed fee increases “could make it cost prohibitive for some local community members to continue to experience the beauty and peace they have been able to enjoy for generations.”
The 16-member advisory commission is made up of representatives of 10 towns bordering or in close proximity to the park, three members appointed by the governor and three at-large members appointed by the secretary of the interior. Johnson represents Gouldsboro on the commission.
The public may comment on the proposed entrance fee hikes online through Nov. 23 at parkplanning.nps.gov/proposedpeakseasonfeerates. Johnson said she encourages everyone to do so.
The Acadia Advisory Commission’s next scheduled meeting is in February. Johnston said she would like to hold a special meeting to discuss the proposed fee increases, but there is not enough time to schedule and advertise a meeting prior to the Nov. 23 deadline for public comment.
“However, individual commission members will be sharing their perspective through the [NPS] website … while continuing to seek feedback from their own respective communities,” she said.
Ken Smith, Bar Harbor’s representative on the commission, said he is concerned about the potential ramifications of the proposed fee increases. Noting that the park pays a lot of “lip service” to the visitor experience, he said, “I would suggest that the fee increase won’t enhance the visitor experience.
“This may serve to limit the number of visitors to all national parks.”
Ben Emory of Bar Harbor, one of the at-large members of the advisory commission, said of the proposed fee hike, “It feeds the image of the parks being for the rich. Is that where we’re headed, the parks are going to be for the rich, even though they’re supposed to be for all Americans?”
Emory also questioned whether the higher fees could be effectively enforced, “given the nature of Acadia being all interconnected with the communities.”
He noted that some residents of the Schoodic Peninsula have previously expressed frustration with some of the park’s rules, and he would expect the proposed fee increases to further antagonize them.
“The fishermen over there go out to the end of Schoodic Point to check sea conditions for their own safety,” Emory said. “They claim they have done this for years, and they don’t like paying a user fee to go check on the safety situation in the ocean.
“I suspect that this fee increase would just increase that kind of complaint that we were already hearing from the Schoodic area.”
Emory said the NPS “absolutely needs money” for park maintenance. “But I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that this is a very unfortunate way to go about it and that this proposal ought to simply be dropped.”
According to the NPS, America’s 59 national parks and 353 other NPS units, such as national monuments and national historic sites, have a combined backlog of deferred maintenance needs worth $11.5 billion. Deferred maintenance projects are defined as those that have been on hold for more than a year.
Acadia has just over $71 million worth of deferred infrastructure projects. That includes $31.1 million for paved roads, $11.1 million for unpaved roads, $9.8 million for trails, $9.6 million for buildings, $2 million for waste water systems, nearly $1 million for employee housing and more than $800,000 for water systems.
David MacDonald, president and CEO of Friends of Acadia (FOA), the nonprofit organization that supports the park, said last week he was concerned that a large fee increase such as the NPS is proposing “may serve as a deterrent for the average citizen to enjoy our parks.”
He told the Islander on Tuesday that the FOA staff and board would work together to submit a formal comment to the NPS on behalf of the organization.
MacDonald said that, at Acadia, park officials and the community have for some time been engaged in “pretty steady, pretty thoughtful efforts” to generate more revenue for the park.
“So, then, to have a dramatic proposal like this [fee increase] dropped on our plate, I’m concerned that it will undermine some of that local partnership and effort.”
Asked if he thought the proposed fee hikes could be intended to reduce congestion during the peak season, MacDonald said, “Given the level of visitation Acadia has been experiencing, I could understand why some might be skeptical, but I honestly don’t believe that’s part of the motivation.
“I don’t believe they’re looking to use visitor entrance fees to tamp down visitation. I think there are much more productive and thoughtful ways to manage that.”
For the past two years, the park has been soliciting public input and working on a long-range transportation plan aimed a reducing congestion. Park officials have said that they hope to have a set of alternative solutions to go out for another round of public comment by the end of this year.
All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation have weighed in on the NPS’s proposal to sharply increase peak-season entrance fees at Acadia and 16 other national parks.
Maine’s Second District Rep. Bruce Poliquin issued a statement in which he called the proposed fee increases “drastic” and “unfair.”
First District Rep. Chellie Pingree said people should not have to “go broke” to visit national parks.
Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King expressed “serious concern” in a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. While acknowledging that the parks need more funding for maintenance projects, the senators told Zinke, “It is difficult to see how this [fee increase] represents a long-term solution to the problem, especially while the National Park Service in its 2018 budget request proposes to cut its own operations budget by $200 million and its maintenance funding by $93 million.”
The NPS estimates that the proposed entrance fee increases would generate an additional $70 million in revenue.
Collins and King urged Zinke to work with Congress to find alternate solutions to the parks’ infrastructure funding needs. They cited several proposals that have been introduced in the Senate to provide more funding to address the parks’ backlog.
Johnston, the Acadia Advisory Commission chairman, said, “We trust that Sens. Collins and King will continue to promote a thoughtful and sensible approach to addressing the maintenance backlog, as well as Friends of Acadia, whose long history of advocacy has greatly benefited Acadia and those who visit it.”