Commentary: How Acadia Fares When Government Shuts Down

By David MacDonald

The last time a prolonged government shutdown affected Acadia National Park in October 2013, the impact on our neighboring communities was immediate and dramatic: park gates were closed and public use discouraged. An estimated $1 million per day in economic activity was lost as many disappointed travelers stayed home during the two-week budget impasse.

This time around, the impact is proving to be different – and a more direct hit on the parks themselves, instead of the business community. Due to a different mandate handed down from the current administration in Washington—to keep the parks open to the public while requiring that a vast majority of park staff be furloughed—there will be both short and long-term damage to the National Park Service’s efforts to protect Acadia and other treasured parks from the major threats they face, including climate change, soaring visitation, and a staggering deferred maintenance backlog.

Acadia is thankfully not making the national news this week like some other parks that are suffering from vandalism, overflowing trash cans, dirty restrooms, and resource degradation from users who are ignoring park rules. It’s not that Acadia is empty: on most days, I have noticed plenty of cars at trailheads and parking lots as folks enjoy hiking, walking and skating on these bright January days.

Winter visitors here are largely from Maine and are not expecting much in the way of services – they are seeking the beauty and solitude that makes Acadia in winter so spectacular. Each morning of the shutdown, Friends of Acadia (FOA) has checked in with the park rangers on duty, and to date they have reported no issues needing additional resources or support. FOA extends our appreciation to those of you who have been practicing Leave No Trace principles and helping to take good care of our park, while also trying not to add to the burden that has been placed on the few park rangers still on the job.

As we all know, Acadia is a unique national park in that it is interwoven with the surrounding towns and private land, with dozens of different entrances and access points, most of them without a gate. This makes the park admittedly more complex to manage, when it comes to transportation planning and entrance fee revenue collection; but it also makes Acadia more resilient and adaptable in handling some of the challenges that come with a government shutdown.

In a healthy and common-sense way, we consider our time in Acadia to be integrated with the rest of our lives – not a once-in-a-lifetime, epic adventure. Even during the 2013 shutdown, which was at a much busier time of year, those who did venture to Acadia described stellar experiences – peak foliage, car-free roads for peaceful walking and biking, and plenty of opportunities to enjoy other activities throughout Mount Desert Island and the region. Likewise, efforts to protect Acadia have benefited from community leadership for more than a century; this feeling of ownership serves us well at times like this.

This is not to say that Acadia is immune from the fallout that will come from the current shutdown. The impacts will be felt, however, over a longer term, as important research, planning, and maintenance projects are curtailed. In a complex and heavily-visited park like Acadia that is already considerably under-funded and under-staffed by Congress, to put 75 staff members on the sidelines for three weeks or more is to put these dedicated professionals further behind the eight-ball in fulfilling their mission.

Acadia operates one of the longest-running and most important air quality monitoring stations for the region; the shutdown is creating a gap in the data that can never be recovered. Researchers were planning to come to Acadia this month to gather and analyze core samples from the bottom of some of Acadia’s ponds to better understand and analyze the degree of mercury in the park. This is a procedure best conducted in the early winter and will likely be delayed for another year. Years of work at the local level to create a new comprehensive Transportation Plan for handling the park’s growing visitation is now at a standstill, as meetings with Interior officials in Washington to seek final approval are delayed. And hiring for the summer seasonal park rangers that are the lifeblood of our beloved park is hindered.

January is also a time when park staff fields hundreds of inquiries from families starting to plan their summer vacations. All of these calls and emails are going unanswered and the park’s social media and web pages go without updates. FOA does have information about visiting Acadia during the shutdown on its social media pages and website:

Partners like Friends of Acadia, the Schoodic Institute, Downeast Transportation, and others are still up and running and adding to that unique resiliency that characterizes Acadia and will help our park weather this and other challenges. But the efforts are far from complete without our park colleagues, and we hope to have them back on the job soon. In the meantime, please offer them your support and let them know that they are missed. Acadia is open, but not whole or sustainable without their return to work in the very near future.

David MacDonald is the President and CEO of Friends of Acadia, an organization that preserves, protects, and promotes stewardship of the outstanding natural beauty, ecological vitality, and distinctive cultural resources of Acadia National Park and surrounding communities for the inspiration and enjoyment of current and future generations.

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