By Sheridan Steele
Having worked for the National Park Service for 38 years, most recently as superintendent of Acadia National Park for 12 years, I can assure you that Americans cherish their national parks, historic sites and recreation areas. Americans know they have the best national park system in the world. These extraordinary natural and historical resources are protected and available for their enjoyment thanks to the dedicated men and women working in the parks. That may be about to change.
President Donald Trump and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke have called for a 17 percent cut in the annual operating budget of national parks, including Acadia, in their proposed 2019 budget. Some negotiations and shifting of funds within the NPS budget could lower the 17 percent, but even a 10 percent reduction in operating funds could essentially eliminate Acadia’s entire seasonal work force. Loss of these 160 temporary employees would dramatically curtail or end routine visitor services, diminish resource protection and allow Acadia to deteriorate and fall into disrepair.
Temporary rangers, resource specialists and maintenance workers clean restrooms, answer emergency calls, do everyday maintenance and provide basic information serving the more than 3 million visitors to Acadia each year. They manage Blackwoods, Seawall and Schoodic Woods campgrounds with over 620 campsites, serve as lifeguards at Sand Beach and Echo Lake, staff Hulls Cove and Schoodic Woods Visitor Centers and maintain public use buildings like Sieur de Monts Nature Center.
They also repair and maintain 81 miles of roads, 152 miles of trails and historic structures such as the 47 miles of carriage roads, two gate houses, the famous iron rung “ladder” trails, Baker Island Lighthouse and 16 unique stone bridges.
Without seasonal rangers, emergency response times would slow and some relatively minor calls for assistance would likely go unanswered. Parking and traffic problems will get worse without staff to manage the most popular areas, such as Cadillac summit and Jordan Pond House.
During the recent — and thankfully, brief — government shutdown, national parks were ordered to remain open but with minimal staff. Dedicated employees were directed to stay home while typical visitor services languished. Search-and-rescue calls, emergency medical situations, snow plowing, clogged toilets, injured or problem animals, broken doors or windows, trash removal, visitor assistance requests, ranger led programs and basic informational services were curtailed or staffed with “skeleton” crews resulting in slower response times, closed facilities or problems ignored.
With a dramatic budget cut similar to the one proposed now, problems such as these could become the norm rather than the exception.
Since 2006, Acadia’s visitation has risen by more than 55 percent, yet its operating budget has declined by 8 percent. Additional funding cuts such as those proposed by Trump and Zinke will further reduce or eliminate vital programs that Americans want and expect at a time when more not fewer rangers are needed to serve increasing demands.
The dual mission of the National Park Service — providing for public use and enjoyment while protecting park resources and values now and for future generations — will most certainly suffer. Magnificent national parks such as Acadia will no longer be the great places to visit. That, in turn, would discourage visitors and hurt the local and regional economies that depend on them as important “economic engines.”
A 2016 study indicated that visitors to Acadia annually spend over $274 million dollars in the local economy and create nearly 4,200 jobs, with a cumulative impact of $333 million. Any significant funding reductions for Acadia (and other national parks) will result in fewer rangers to provide visitor services, diminished natural and historical resource protection, a loss of the quality experience for Americans visiting their national parks and negative impacts to the local economy. Surely, this nation is wealthy enough to fully fund our collective national heritage contained in the National Park System.
Sheridan Steele is the retired National Park Service superintendent of Acadia and other national parks. He serves on the executive committee of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks. He lives in Mount Desert.