By Ann Michelson Hirschhorn
Members of the new Bar Harbor ferry terminal property advisory committee are being asked to recommend solutions for a very complex issue without access to all the necessary facts. To my knowledge, there have been, to date, no in-depth economic, financial, environmental or cultural impact studies done by neutral, unbiased professional researchers. I do not envy them their task.
However, there is one paramount factor which should be apparent to all and should help to inform their decisions.
Why do the cruise ships want to come to Bar Harbor? Certainly, it is a quaint Maine seaside village; it has many tasteful and interestingly stocked shops which appeal to a variety of tastes; it boasts a wide range of highly recommended restaurants; it offers boat tours, museums, lobstermen with their lobster boats, traps and oilskins, and, of course, lobster: boiled, broiled, stewed and rolled.
All picture perfect! But this does not distinguish Bar Harbor from many other picturesque towns dotting the coast of Maine.
What sets Bar Harbor apart, and makes it the most desirable port of call, is its crown jewel: Acadia National Park.
The park is mandated by federal law “to protect and conserve Acadia’s outstanding scenic and natural resources and cultural identity for future generations.” It is charged with allowing opportunities for preservation, education, scientific research and recreation. It must provide “spiritual respite and encourage responsible stewardship” along with easy accessibility.
This dual directive to preserve and yet make available for public enjoyment has become increasingly difficult for the park’s leaders to achieve, but achieve it, they must. Among Acadia’s specific purposes is to “promote and regulate the use of the park for the benefit of the people in such a manner and by such means as will leave the park resources unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
With the inexorable increase in land and cruise tourists as well as vehicular traffic and parking, the park has reached a crisis point. The first thing you see on the Acadia National Park website is an advisory that, although you are most welcome, you should have backup plans because the site you may want to visit is overcrowded and has been temporarily closed to further visitation. There are pictures of gridlock for sunrise on Cadillac Mountain (400 cars for 170 parking spaces). All this with the current level of land and local tourism and the current cruise ship passenger caps.
Faced with its mandates and a crisis of overcrowding, the park is developing a new transportation plan. It is not a Disneyland. It cannot go out and buy up new property to expand parking and develop new attractions. It must work with what it has without despoiling the nature and character of its domain. I am sure the plan will include limitations on numbers of vehicles, encouraging alternate means of travel and fairness and transparency in allotting entry to its various constituent groups: land tourists, cruise tourists, local visitors and the handicapped. I doubt if cruise tourists will be given specific priority on days when large ships are in town.
As the committee formulates recommendations to the Town Council, I hope they keep in mind that the prime destination of this port of call is maxed out with the current number of visitors and whatever adjustments are made to allow an increase in numbers will only serve to limit the opportunities for all. It could get to the point that the cruise industry will decide to go elsewhere.
I haven’t heard that the park has been asked to weigh in on the issue up until now. Why is the seat reserved for the Acadia National Park on the town’s Cruise Ship Committee currently vacant? The park is pivotal to cruise tourism in Bar Harbor. It should be an integral part of any and all planning and discussions; its charter must be respected, if it is to remain the star attraction of this port of call.
Ann Michelson Hirschhorn lives in Hancock Point.