Preserving what’s important

‘Tis the season, it seems, for public comment.

We’ve just celebrated the contributions that public comment and feedback in public hearings made to improvements to the Maine State Ferry Service fee structure and the National Park Service entrance fee schedule.

Now, residents here have a new proposal to chew on, digest and debate: the long-awaited Acadia National Park transportation plan. The clock is ticking on the 60-day comment period that began April 27.

Because of the strong emotional connection that Mount Desert Island residents have to Acadia and all it represents, the changes being discussed in the plan likely will be jarring to some. Everyone and every family have favorite hikes, picnic spots, beach rambles, rock scrambles and scenic drives. Those are important. While some of the minor logistics of those outings may change in the next few years, none of the important stuff will change.

Keeping Acadia, Acadia is one point of the planning effort. Doing nothing, with visitors missing their chance to watch the sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain because they’re waiting in their cars to find a place to park, is not an option. Waiting in traffic is not outdoor recreation.

The newsletter summarizing the plan describes “desired conditions” the proposal aims to achieve. Everyone agrees on these: “Vehicles do not dominate visitor views and experiences at key attractions. Visitors easily find their destination and understand their options for accessing park features. Visitors have the freedom to roam and explore the surrounding areas.”

We will disagree on how to achieve these goals. That’s also a point of the effort. To provide feedback that’s as informed and specific as possible, commenters should study the plan as carefully as park service officials will study the comments.

When studying the plan and pondering how it may affect our families and businesses, it’s also important to remember that the ways people move about in, and enjoy, Acadia have changed dramatically over the park’s 102 years.

There used to be trains and trolleys up Cadillac and passenger boats on Eagle Lake. Right-lane parking on the Park Loop Road was instituted in the 1970s when the road became one-way to reduce congestion. A 1990 planning document called for this to be phased out, once the Island Explorer bus system was in place. The first buses ran in 1999, but we still have right-lane parking.

While the draft plan identifies a “preferred alternative” among several possible courses of action, that could change. The purpose of identifying the preference, the newsletter says, is “to let the public known which alternative the NPS is leaning towards selecting” when the draft plan is released. “Ultimately, a different alternative could be selected, or a new alternative representing a different combination of strategies could be developed.”

To offer official public comment, which will be entered into the record of the consideration of this plan under the National Environmental Policy Act, individuals and groups have three choices: send feedback to Acadia at a Bar Harbor P.O. box, fill out the comment form on the NPS Planning, Environment and Public Comment website or attend an open house event.

As recent experiences have shown, this public comment process is not just a formality. Government agencies are required to tabulate and carefully consider the feedback offered. And very often, that feedback is incorporated to make policy smarter, fairer and more effective. Everyone affected by management decisions at Acadia must pull together in the coming weeks to help shape the best plan possible.

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