In the Park

In Maine, many players make Acadia hum.

Mount Desert Island, Maine-For Sheridan Steele, superintendent of Acadia National Park, and Marla O'Byrne, president of a private group that raises money to support the park, the busiest season has waned with summer's end.

Acre for acre, Acadia is the most visited national park. This year, it will attract about 2.5 million visitors to rusticate among the tranquil forests, streams and ponds covering much of the only mountainous island on the East Coast. Thousands walk steep trails, some reaching the highest peak, Cadillac Mountain, the first place in the United States to see the sun's rays.

Interviews here reveal the park as a complex operation heavily reliant on a multisector workforce. Steele and Friends of Acadia leader O'Byrne, are important players in an enterprise that's key to the economy in this part of Maine.

Steele, who joined the National Park Service in 1978, is a public service entrepreneur whose vision of establishing the Black Canyon of the Gunnison as a national park was enacted in 1999. He was in the Oval Office when President Clinton signed the law. This summer, he and his wife entertained Laura Bush when she visited the park.

As Steele notes, his duties are more varied than those of most Senior Executive Service members. He is like a city manager-responsible for law enforcement, fire prevention, search and rescue, campgrounds, and lots of maintenance of the park's 125 miles of hiking trails and 45 miles of unique carriage roads. He must deal every week with a variety of others whose lives are entwined with the park: local governments, private businesses both inside and on the perimeters of the park, not to mention his staff of 87 permanent and 130 seasonal employees, hundreds of volunteers and those endless streams of visitors looking for a beautiful outdoor sojourn.

Park budgets have seen slow growth, but not enough to keep pace with inflation and demand for services. As a consequence, Steele has kept 20 of the park's permanent positions vacant, using the money for summer-season demands. So it is that Steele counts on a network of private sector players whose aggregate workforce exceeds the Park Service head count here.

One of them is O'Byrne's Friends of Acadia, which raises $3 million to $5 million a year to support the park. Unlike most other such groups, it can lobby Congress-more openly and actively than park officials themselves. FoA officials twice have gone to Congress for challenge grants, to be matched by private contributions, and they have created endowments now worth $15 million to support maintenance of the carriage roads and trails. A similar program is starting up to refurbish the National Mall in Washington, and the Park Service's Centennial Challenge grant program now under review in Congress also will follow the pattern.

FoA raises money to buy pockets of private land that remain within the park's boundaries. Along with L.L. Bean, Maine's signature business, it helps fund the fare-free Island Explorer bus system that removes many cars from the narrow roads here. The friends group pays trail bosses to oversee volunteers who work on maintenance and other tasks. Volunteers contribute nearly 40,000 hours of labor annually to the park.

Considering his own workforce, Steele says middle managers are ready to step into leadership posts, but there's "a real gap in 10 to 15 years." He sees less interest in park jobs, and fewer people with training that would qualify them to be hired. That is part of a general decline in Americans' experience with outdoor life, and it's a problem that needs fixing, lest the parks' multisector workforce be left without the leadership it requires.

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