Cadillac is tough as granite, yet the alpine zone of Acadia National Park’s tallest mountain is fragile as eggshells.
With the approximately 3 million visitors a year to the park, and Acadia’s highest peak a must-see stop, it’s a constant battle to protect the bald summit and ridge, and the special Cadillac ecology.
One recent victory in the conservation battle: Fixing a couple of sections of the popular Cadillac South Ridge Trail, which had become eroded and could turn into a muddy mess, tempting hikers to trample rare alpine plants.
“We created about 100 feet of rock-lined causeway in two distinct locations that clearly defined the trail, eliminating the standing water and mud that was there,” according to a December 2016 Acadia National Park report, by Charlie Jacobi, natural resource specialist; Rebecca Flesh, recreation technician; and Gary Stellpflug, trails foreman. “Deer hair sedge…and mountain sandwort…, two species of growing concern in the park, are now better protected in the vicinity of the project.”
A $3,200 grant from the Waterman Fund, a nonprofit that focuses on conserving the alpine areas of northeastern North America, helped protect the Cadillac ecology, along with matching funds from the National Park Service and Friends of Acadia.
Similar to a 2014 project on Sargent Mountain, also supported by the Waterman Fund, the July 2016 work to protect the Cadillac ecology involved park staff, and teens and young adults participating in Friends of Acadia supported programs. Some crushed rocks with sledgehammers, and others moved rocks from a big cairn at the junction with the Cadillac West Face Trail. Signs and workers would educate hikers about the project, and hiker behavior before and after the trail rehabilitation was studied.
Constant battle to protect Cadillac, change bad hiker behavior
Just as trying to protect the Cadillac ecology is a never-ending battle, trying to understand and change hiker behavior is a constant struggle, especially for Jacobi, Acadia’s natural resource specialist, who won the Waterman Fund’s Alpine Steward Award in 2010, and has served as president of the nonprofit.
Whether it involves educating people about not messing around with Acadia’s unique Bates-style cairns or randomly stacking rocks; or coming up with signs and other methods to direct people to stay on the trail, or at least the hard granite surface; or reporting on the Cadillac South Ridge Trail rehabilitation, Jacobi is involved.
“Before rehabilitation, 87% of hikers stayed on the trail; afterwards this increased to 99%,” according to the report co-authored by Jacobi. “It is worth noting that 13% noncompliance from hikers is very good, but it represents thousands of hikers per season on a busy trail, and under wet or icy conditions a small number of them can quickly erode the edge of the trail…, and vegetative recovery is slow.”
And in a side note about hiker comments on the project, the report said, “Anecdotally, we listened to several hikers complain about the tread we crushed, describing it as too hard to walk on because of its large size. Despite this, they stayed on it, perhaps simply because it was obvious. We note that most hikers today, including those we observed, wear low cut trail running shoes or sneakers with little ankle support. Hiking boots are not that common anymore.”
Among other on-going efforts to modify hiker behavior, protect Cadillac ecology and manage crowds and traffic at the 1,530-foot summit:
A new park transportation plan is being developed, with such ideas as a car reservation system to help address problems like the closing of the Cadillac Summit Road 12 times in 2016; a Cadillac Summit Steward program that began in 2014 with proceeds from the Friends of Acadia benefit auction; and a project to survey and restore fragile alpine vegetation on Cadillac that began in 2015 with funding from Friends of Acadia and the New England Wild Flower Society.
Over the years, as much as 16% of Cadillac summit vegetation and soil has been damaged, and more than 300 visitor-created “social trails” totaling nearly 1.5 miles have been tallied on the peak, according to estimates cited by park and Friends of Acadia officials.
Mountain sandwort, once a “common resident” of Cadillac, now rare
There’s no Alpine Garden Trail on Cadillac as there is on Mount Washington, but the low-growing mountain sandwort or three-toothed cinquefoil could certainly be prime attractions, if visitors were to look down between the rock crevices, and not just at the grand scenery around them.
We’ve seen both alpine plants in Acadia, the three-toothed cinquefoil growing hard against the edge of the paved Cadillac Summit Loop, and the rare mountain sandwort, not on Cadillac, but on Parkman Mountain with its similarly bald summit.
A wayside exhibit put up recently along the Cadillac Summit Loop, entitled “Not so Barren,” tries to focus visitor’s attention underfoot, with images of the three-toothed cinquefoil and a “Protect the Park” graphic asking people not to trample plants.
In a 1939 Acadia Nature Notes, the park described the mountain sandwort as a “common resident of the Cadillac Mountain summit.” Now, the Maine Natural Areas Program calls the tiny alpine plant rare and of “special concern” in the state.
As you visit Cadillac – the tallest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic coast – on your next trip to Acadia, look beyond the traffic and the crowds, the magnificent landscape and seascape, and down at your feet to see the tiny alpine flowers that can survive the weather on exposed granite summits, but not the trampling by careless hikers.
Keep in mind the vision of the Waterman Fund, which calls itself the only organization in the Northeast with a mission to combine the spirit of wildness and alpine stewardship:
“Alpine areas retain their ecological integrity. Every visitor stewards the land and experiences its wonder. Least intrusive management practices prevail and human impacts are minimized. The spirit of wildness pervades the mountains.”
The Waterman Fund sponsors an annual essay contest for emerging writers, with prizes totaling $2,000. This year’s theme is what humans build in wild places, and the ecological and emotional integrity of wilderness and wildness. Deadline for submission is April 15, 2017. The winning entry is published in Appalachia Journal. Last year, when the theme was wilderness and management of public lands, in celebration of the National Park Service and Acadia Centennials, there was no entry deemed to explore the issue in sufficient depth.