Acadia National Park officials are in the middle of preparing a five-year transportation plan that will examine ways to better handle the crowds and traffic generated by millions of annual visits.
As already experienced several times this year, the continued crush of too many people attempting to visit the park at once is becoming an increasingly vexing problem.
Just last week, the road to the top of Cadillac Mountain had to be closed due to gridlock at the top. Earlier this summer, over the Fourth of July weekend, the road to the top of Cadillac Mountain had to be closed three times — just before sunset on two days and once on the afternoon of July 3. That same weekend, cars filled every parking lot and nearly every inch of the right lane on one-way sections of the Park Loop Road, particularly along Ocean Drive from Sand Beach to Otter Cliffs.
Because of congestion and the failure of numerous visitors to obey the “no parking” signs, Acadia’s managers took the unprecedented step this summer of prohibiting all parking in the Bubble Pond lot during high season.
As usual, parking in the vicinity of Jordan Pond House has been a nightmare all summer as well.
Meanwhile, Island Explorer shuttle buses this summer groaned to keep up with increased demand, suggesting that even the addition of more public transit options ultimately will not address the crush of people wanting to get into the park at the same time.
Traditionally, the major traffic crunch comes in late July and August, the months of peak visitation. But with the park and the entire National Park Service celebrating centennials in 2016, it appears the summer high tide of visitation arrived much earlier and is lasting longer into the fall.
Centennial officials have worked closely with park experts to spread the word on ways people can avoid being part of the crowding problem by visiting at off-peak times of day or during the shoulder seasons. They have also shared ways to enjoy the solitude still awaiting discovery in less-visited parts of the park as another option. From all appearances, those efforts have born fruit: less-frequented parts of the park seem busier this year, and more and more people are out and about early in the day and later in the evening.
The Schoodic Peninsula park lands also have seen an increase in activity.
But visitor education and guidance provide only limited relief.
Some may argue that the problem of crowding will ultimately solve itself. As the number of visitors increases, the much ballyhooed visitor experience will diminish – perhaps to the point where folks will not want to return. Instead of gushing about Acadia when they return home, or in online reviews, negative comments could result in a precipitous drop in repeat visitation.
Concerns about that very possibility surfaced at last week’s Acadia Advisory Commission meeting. “It seems to me that there’s some sense that if visitation goes up 20 percent, given the fact that the park is over capacity, that the quality of the experience goes down maybe 20 percent,” commission member Ben Emory said.
Even more worrisome, however, is what damage all these visitors may end up doing to the environment, injuring the very landscape they come to see.
What all of this suggests is that even a well-reasoned and thoughtful transportation plan will be, at best, a stopgap measure. While the concept of setting a carrying capacity for the park has engendered strong opposition in years past, if present trends continue, it is one that will have to be revisited.
Eventually, the park’s dual responsibilities of accommodating all who come and protecting the area’s unique natural resources will come into stark conflict.
Whether it is by limiting vehicular access, capping the number of visitors, requiring advance reservations during peak times of year or other methods, setting maximum limits will have a far-reaching impact on the park, not just on its seasonal visitors but also on all area residents who enjoy unfettered access as part of their regular recreational activities.
For the good of the park and the economic vitality of the surrounding communities, setting a carrying capacity is a conversation that should be started soon.
The breaking point at which “enough is enough” may not be within view. But make no mistake; if current trends continue, it is closer than many might like to admit.