Taking the long view in Acadia

By Robert Page

If trees grow in a forest to block distant views of scenery, is anything lost if there is no one to remember the former beauty? Do you remember the many scenic views along Acadia National Park’s Loop Road that have been blocked by the growth of trees in your own lifetime?

Much as sounds from falling trees depend on the presence of ears, appreciation of landscape scenery depends on the presence of eyes; eyes connected to neurons storing shared memories and values.

Every year, visitors arrive at Acadia National Park, some first-timers, others returning with friends and family. Among their purposes in visiting is to recapture memories of the great beauty here, or otherwise, to discover personally something new and beautiful in the Mount Desert landscape, creating and sharing new memories of the beauty with others.

Acadia’s historic motor road system provides visitors recreational access to the park’s magnificent scenery through a series of scenic views. Unfortunately, memories are all that will remain of many of the park’s roadside views. Except for those from the heights of Cadillac Mountain, the surviving open views are becoming so precious because of the growing forest that these open vantage points are bottlenecks on busy weekends. Similar to “bear jams” in the great western national parks, carloads and busloads of visitors to Acadia feel compelled to stop when encountering increasingly scarce vistas, to take it all in.

Acadia’s system of “motor-roads” was constructed between 1922 and 1958 partially to forestall automobile traffic upon Rockefeller’s beloved carriage roads. Young saplings had only just begun to colonize the steep engineered fill slopes of the roadways when much of the island burned in 1947. Yet by 1958, the National Park Service was concerned enough about the loss of roadside views to direct a young landscape architect to document their locations and extents before it was too late. Completed in 1961, this documentation was engraved into the park’s institutional memory by way of the 1992 General Management Plan, which cited the documentation as baseline data supporting long term perpetuation of roadside character and visitor experience.

Over the past few years, Acadia National Park and staff from the National Park Service Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation have been working closely together to reconcile the 1961 pen and ink drawings of the young landscape architect with modern computerized geospatial tools, including Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Hoping to move beyond the malleable qualities of memory and opinion, this effort has sought greater specificity regarding the scope of vista management and its impacts to other park resources.

The park now has the baseline data needed to begin rehabilitation of the vistas. This effort has identified thirty vistas for priority cutting of overgrown vegetation because they offer unique views, are at the most popular visitor destinations – such as Bubble Rock, or are at existing pull-outs and parking lots. Vista rehabilitation work is as much an art as it is a science. It will require careful attention to reopening the original view intended by the designers. Trees and shrubs will be cut, but only in the smallest area necessary to open up and maintain the vista, just as cutting of vegetation was carefully considered when the roads were originally built.

As we approach the centennial of both Acadia’s founding and the creation of the National Park Service, we have a unique opportunity to recapture the historic views and visitor experience of traveling Acadia National Park’s Park Loop Road and to enhance access to the magnificent scenery which Acadia was created to protect.

Robert Page, FASLA, is director of The Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, National Park Service, in Boston.