Reflections on government and nature: summer and fall at Acadia National Park

By Timothy B. Clark

October 15, 2008

MOUNT DESERT ISLAND, Maine-As I peered into the future last spring, I realized that I might match my obligation (and privilege) to write the "Perspectives" column appearing each month at the end of the magazine with my plan to spend a few weeks on the island that is home to Acadia National Park.

So I spent days here interviewing players in the park, learning about what it takes to run a complex program with many diverse stakeholders. And I did write two Perspectives columns, the first about the multi-sector workforce that Acadia operations requires, and the second about the movement here and elsewhere to encourage more young people to acquire a love for nature.

But I realized that words alone don't tell the story of the people and beautiful scenery at Acadia. And so I brought back a photo gallery that tells a bit about both.

First, a word about the park's most famous feature, Cadillac Mountain, whose peak is the first place the sun reaches in the United States by virtue of its location and its elevation, some 1,530 feet.

Cadillac, the highest peak on the only mountainous island on the East Coast of the United States, appeals to the romantic instinct. Jenna Bush, daughter of the president, was hiking Cadillac when Henry Hager, now her husband, popped the question. Charles W. Mayo, the National Park Service manager of interpretation and education, likewise proposed to his wife at the top of Cadillac some 13 years ago, he told me during an interview.

The island began to be widely known in the mid-1880s, when "rusticators" came to enjoy its great beauty and escape the big-city bustle. Sailors among them discovered some of the best sailing waters in the east, and hikers began carving out trails to the wonderful views one finds from the granite ledges that glaciers left running along the ridges atop many of the mountains.

Among the visitors were Hudson River School artists such as Frederic Church and Thomas Cole, whose large canvases of the stunning scenery were put on paid display in New York and other cities, attracting large audiences and spreading the news of Acadia's beauty. For the public, their work "invented" Acadia, wrote Pamela J. Belander and John Wilmerding and in a brilliant book on the origins of American tourism (Inventing Acadia: Artists and Tourists at Mount Desert, Farnsworth, 1999.)

The national park began to take shape in 1913, when President Wilson set aside 6,000 acres as a national monument. Congress gave it national park status in 1919, and 10 years later it assumed its current name.

The park is small, just 35,000 acres, but attracts more than 2.5 million visitors a year. Acre-for-acre, it's the most visited national park in the country. But it rarely seems crowded as one walks its unique, 45-mile system of carriage trails (the gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr.) or 125 miles of hiking trails that offer great views of lakes and ponds and islands off the rocky coast.

Acadia's staff is run by Superintendent Sheridan Steele, a National Park Service veteran whose day is full of varied challenges, notably including work to preserve views and parcels still within the park from commercial development. Steele's budget has not kept pace with costs and demand for services, so he turns for help to a network of volunteers.

Three times a week, some of the volunteers show up at park headquarters to help with trail maintenance and other physical tasks organized by coordinator Jonathan S. Gormley. It's a marvelously enthusiastic and energetic group, whose average age puts it right in the demographic reached by the network evening news programs. We're talking senior citizens, and upon reflection, that comes as no great surprise, since many are retired or on flexible work schedules that give them more time than younger parents. Volunteer Len Berkowitz says of the maintenance work: "It's so rewarding. Every day you can see your contribution. I used to be in interior design. Now, I'm doing exterior design."

The volunteers have a public service spirit; some have worked as teachers, others as federal employees. The group includes, for example, Howard Solomon, former executive director of the Federal Service Impasses Panel, and Jennifer Donaldson, who retired from the National Cancer Institute in 2003 to live in Bar Harbor, but still does some work under contract for NCI. Gormley reports that volunteer hours have been increasing-to 45,308 in 2007.

There's a rich history of giving at Acadia. Volunteers give their time. Many years ago, Rockefeller gave the park 11,000 acres, almost a third of its current acreage. An active summer community contributes time and money to many island causes, including Friends of Acadia, which supports the park. FOA throws an annual auction dinner that raises about $400,000 toward an annual budget of $3 million to $5 million.

There's a lot of wealth among summer residents: FOA this summer raised $1.75 million in just two weeks to protect an important site on Acadia Mountain from the developer's axe. Marla O'Byrne, the full-time president of FOA, notes that her organization, unlike most other parks' friends groups, maintains a tax status that allows it to lobby Congress. This brand of advocacy has helped the park, whose own employees are not allowed to engage in lobbying activity.

Steele worries that kids aren't getting enough exposure to the outdoors, and he's organized an outreach effort to interest students throughout Maine in learning about the park. One day, on a bicycle tour of Acadia's Schoodic Peninsula section, across Frenchman's Bay from Mt. Desert Island, I ran into a ranger, Kate Petrie, who is training a group of public school teachers in preparation for visits by their students to the education center that's arisen among the buildings ceded to the Park Service by the Navy a few years back. It's a great setting, with great views, day and night, in which to get a taste for biology, geology and astronomy.

Click here for a slide show of Acadia National Park.

By Timothy B. Clark

October 15, 2008