Editor’s Note: This is part two of a three part series looking at the next 100 years of Acadia National Park. Be sure to also read part one, “How climate change could change Acadia over the next 100 years,” and watch for part three!
In the early 1900s, automobiles were banned in Bar Harbor. MDI’s summer “rusticators” — who converged on the island seeking respite from the cacophony and pollution of city life — lobbied for the prohibition, fearing the ruin of their bucolic seaside getaway.
The debate was contentious, with others advocating for the ease and economy of motorized transport. The ban was lifted after several years, but the the tension resonates.
Today, more visitors flock to Acadia each year than reside in the entire state of Maine. Visitation has surged 35 percent in just the last decade.
Locals lament congestion, yet the economy depends on tourist dollars. Construction to meet this growing demand also risks eroding the charm and landscape that attracts visitors in the first place.
Acadia welcomed 2.81 million people in 2015, the highest annual visitation in 20 years. These visitors generated more than $300 million for the region’s economy and supported 3,878 jobs, according a park analysis.
The crowds thronging to Acadia’s reflect a pattern at national parks across the country. As a result, the National Park Service is considering limiting the number of visitors at popular sites, aiming to protect the country’s most treasured natural landscapes.
In Maine, Acadia officials carefully avoid talk of visitor caps. But later this summer, the park will release a plan to reduce congestion at popular destinations within the park. The changes could ripple through a regional economy built on the visitors the park draws from around the world.
Acadia’s first-ever long-term traffic management plan will have plans to “improve safety on park roads and reduce crowding and congestion at key visitor destinations and travel corridors, including Cadillac Mountain, Jordan Pond, and Ocean Drive,” according to Park Superintendent Kevin Schneider.
The park service expects to release more information and gather public comment this summer, with the traffic plan’s completion slated for the spring of 2018.
While the agency is unlikely to revive the all out ban on vehicle traffic, the century-old prohibition echoes in the form of car-free mornings on the Park Loop Road. Acadia instituted the biannual event last year in response to feedback from visitors eager to escape the sound of engines and smell of exhaust.
Not only do visitors enjoy the relative peace, but park officials have gotten a glimpse at the effects of restricting traffic. They’ll keep that in mind as they develop their plan for how Acadia will welcome visitors over the next few decades.
“We want people to have the opportunity to spend time in the park – not searching endlessly for a place to park!” Schneider wrote.
With visitors come dollars
Where once a handful of philanthropists saw mountains, lakes and rocky ocean beaches to be protected and preserved in perpetuity, now scores of tourist-related businesses depend on this landscape for hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
“It’s huge,” said Martha Searchfield, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce and longtime owner of Canterbury Cottage B&B. “[The park is] our biggest tourism partner. It’s been 100 years that [the surrounding communities and Acadia] have existed together. They’ve grown up together.”
Central to that shared history was the great fire of 1947, which swept across 17,000 acres on the eastern side of MDI, destroying the grand hotels that catered to East Coast high society and dozens of seasonal mansions owned by the old, wealthy families of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Their cottages destroyed, many of those families never returned.
As a result, island residents who had worked for the rusticator class pinned their economic futures on Acadia National Park and automobiles to bring tourists to the island. Motor hotels — or “motels” — sprang up in Bar Harbor, as did restaurants and shops.
“The park is responsible for creating Bar Harbor as it is today,” said Eben Salvatore, director of MDI operations for Ocean Properties, which owns several of the most notable hotels on the island. “The only thing that sets Bar Harbor apart is Acadia.”
Christopher Strout worked in Bar Harbor as a seasonal kayak guide for nearly a decade, packing up at the end of each summer to seek out work off the island. But now, the Kenduskeag native runs his own paddleboard business, a venture he says wouldn’t have been viable more than five years ago.
The presence of Acadia and the increasing variety of outdoor activities the park attracts has enabled Strout to stay in Bar Harbor year-round, he said. He started out four years ago as a one-man show working out of his apartment, but now has a seasonal retail shop downtown. His business, Acadia Stand Up Paddleboarding, offers paddleboard rentals, tours, and lessons.
Each summer, Strout, 36, employs half a dozen people, most of whom work part-time.
The business is helping him achieve his goal of putting down roots on MDI, he said. Strout plans to remain in Bar Harbor and one day start a family.
“I love this place,” Strout said. “This is where I want to stay.”
Strout’s business is among a skyrocketing number of private companies permitted to offer services inside the park. Over the past dozen years, the permits have ballooned by nearly 500 percent, from 39 in 2003 to 226 in 2015.
Of those authorized last year, 132 were charter bus companies, while others included photography and painting workshop instructors, summer camps for children, and expedition guide services for activities such as bicycling and kayaking.
When they’re not enjoying the outdoors, all those visitors need somewhere to lay their heads. Bar Harbor has seen an explosion in hotel development in recent years, with five large hotels built in or near the central village since 1995.
But the building boom may be headed for a slowdown, according to Salvatore.
“You can’t make more land,” he said. “We’re not bumping against the ceiling, but we’re within reach of it.”
Yet the success of this economic strategy — which is expected to continue paying dividends for decades to come — is causing a forward-looking examination of how to cope with pressures of rising visitation.
Tourism is rising by land and by sea. The cruise ship business is booming, with yearly cruise ship visits to Bar Harbor quintupling from 22 in 1990 to a state record of 127 two years ago.
More than 150,000 cruise ship passengers visit MDI annually. They spend on average a little more than $120 in each port they visit, according to cruise industry officials, translating to $17.8 million in Bar Harbor last year.
The growth of cruise ship tourism is a prime example of how the park’s economic impact could continue to expand, said Chris Fogg, former executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce who now runs the Maine Tourism Association.
Plans to rebuild a defunct ferry terminal on Route 3 into a berth for cruise ships could help to boost tourism without building more hotels or roads for cars. Presently, large ships must anchor in Frenchman Bay and ferry passengers to shore. Ships now cancel their visits when the weather turns bad. With a renovated terminal, large cruise ships could dock regardless of the elements.
If environmental trends hold true, however, it could become even easier to dock a cruise ship in Bar Harbor.
Over the next 25 years, climate change scientists have predicted the sea level can rise 4.3 inches to 13.4 inches in Bar Harbor. And for the state of Maine, sea level is predicted to rise up to 2 feet over the next 100 years, according to USGS.
“Sea level rise is a big deal to us in Acadia because we have so much coastline, and the coastline is where visitors go by in large,” Miller-Rushing said. “The sea level is going to get higher. And probably even more impactful is that bigger storms will become more common and that shoves sea water further inland. It will cause big flooding of coastal roads and dangers to visitors.”
Coming up next
Planning for change is a big shift for U.S. national park management, which for decades, operated by an essential doctrine of ensuring that nothing should ever change. How can Acadia National Park find that balance?