Acadia National Park proposes to keep Isle au Haut primitive

UPDATED 12/13/14: Final management plan released, see link at bottom of story.

Acadia National Park in July released a 30-page draft report that shows the reasons Isle au Haut is such a special place and spells out efforts to keep it that way.

The National Park Service’s draft “Visitor Use Management Plan” for Isle au Haut recommends only a minor increase in the longtime daily cap on the number of visitors to the island, the first such increase in more than 30 years.

Eben's Head is a spectacular rocky promontory on Isle au Haut

Eben’s Head, a rocky promontory, can easily be climbed and is great for watching a sunset on Isle au Haut.

The draft, which will be discussed at an Aug. 5 public hearing, includes a plethora of other important, but so far little-noticed, points:

— Shush! Stay quiet about this island 6,500-acre paradise, half of which is owned and managed by the park service. In order to protect the island from too much use, the draft says the park service will continue a so-called “non-promotion” policy for Isle au Haut. Tourists on Mount Desert Island and the Schoodic Peninsula, the two other sections of the Maine national park, generally will not get information about Isle au Haut unless they ask.

— The no-promote policy may be having an effect over time. Annual visitation is currently lower than the past, with about 5,000 – 7,500 day use visitors, down from a high of 8,844 day use visitors in 1998.

— Working with island residents, the park service will evaluate the effects of possibly building a new trail on park and private lands near town. The park currently boasts 19 miles of hiking trails. Park officials are looking at providing a new hike near town and maybe diverting use from popular south coast trails such as the Cliff Trail and the Goat Trail, which offer sweeping ocean views. The only trail at town landing now is the 3.8-mile Duck Harbor Trail, mainly used for access to the Duck Harbor campground, including from May 15 until mid June, when the campground is open but the passenger ferry from Stonington on the mainland does not travel to Duck Harbor.

Western Ear, an island off the southern coast of Isle au Haut

Western Ear, an island off the southern coast of Isle au Haut framed by branches in this photo, can be reached via a hike at low tide.

— At least three State of Maine endangered or threatened species of plants are found on Isle au Haut: swarthy sedge, Screwstem and inkberry. A fourth plant, mountain sandwort, usually found in alpine habitats, is currently state-listed as a plant of special concern.

— Not a porcupine island. Because of its distance from the mainland, the striped skunk, beaver and porcupine are missing from Isle au Haut.

— Significant wildlife on Isle au Haut include the harlequin duck, which winters along the southern coast and is currently state-listed as threatened. Bald eagles and purple sandpipers are two other less common species.

— Perhaps of most significance, Isle au Haut is an important stopover refuge for migrating bats, insects, shorebirds, raptors, and songbirds.

— Despite its distance from the mainland, Isle au Haut was part of the rusticator revolution that dominated Mount Desert Island. In the late 19th century, rusticators, or early country vacationers, established a summer colony on Isle au Haut at Point Lookout, at the northern end of the island, and built cottages and the hiking trails that are now critical to the park.

— Partly because of tension caused by visitors who trespassed on private property, Congress passed the special law in 1982 that limited visitor use of Isle au Haut and prompted policies such as rangers meeting ferries and guiding visitors into the park.

— More than 700 species of plants have been identified on Isle au Haut, a considerable number for a moderately sized island.

— Pitch Pine Woodland, somewhat rare in Maine, can be found on Isle au Haut. The 1.8-mile Median Ridge Trail offers the best opportunity for hikers to explore such woodland.

— In contrast to trails in the Mount Desert Island part of the park, trails on Isle au Haut will be maintained as primitive. Highly crafted features will be used sparingly. Stone steps, rock paving, and retaining walls will be used only when necessary to stabilize erosion or promote safety. Blazing and marking of trails will be less frequent and designed for more experienced hikers.

— The layout of the five-site, nearly 50-year-old Duck Harbor campground, including lean-tos, restrooms, and trails, will be reviewed to determine the possibility of reconfiguring facilities to boost privacy at sites while offering increased protection for the environment.

— A cap of 30 people at the campground, or a maximum of 6 at each site, will be retained as an important and fixed component of the overall daily visitor capacity.

— Other existing campground regulations will be enforced including a maximum 3-night stay and only one camping visit per person per calendar year.

— If people are already planning a visit to the island, the park service will expand efforts to provide information including plans for parking in Stonington, island geography, recreation opportunities, natural and cultural resources, history, safety, and Leave No Trace guidelines, including information about marine litter and debris, sometimes a key problem for beaches.

The National Park Service will air the plan during a public workshop from 3 to 5 p.m. on Aug. 5 at the Isle au Haut Town Hall. Comments on the plan can be provided until Sept. 5.

Isle au Haut is an island that is a 90-minute drive from Bar Harbor and then a 5-mile boat trip from Stonington.

Under the 1982 federal law, the park service must establish a visitor capacity and review it every five years. Previously, the daily capacity was always at 120, or 90 day visitors and 30 campers at Duck Harbor campground.

The park service is recommending that the daily cap on visitors be increased to 128, except for a limit of six days in July and August when the capacity will be cleared to exceed 128.

News release with link to final plan:

Acadia National Park final Isle au Haut management plan

16 thoughts on “Acadia National Park proposes to keep Isle au Haut primitive

  1. James Linnane

    Don’t know if you will see this.
    Belated thanks for posting about IAH. Before seeing this and the actual NPS plan I did not know there was a “do not promote” policy. I have been to IAH 3 or 4 times, twice as part of an FOA volunteer group, and am lucky enough to be going again this Tuesday (8/3/21). IAH is a special place, so different from MDI in summer. Nature makes it special and Acadia National Park’s policy in response to local concerns keeps it that way. It appears that the policy resulted from an act of Congress. One supposes that is the only way there could be such a policy given the mission given to NPS by its Organic Act. On MDI there are a couple of places well-known to frequent visitors that have disappeared from park maps. Almost everyone I know agrees that MDI is too popular this summer and that is without the cruise ships.
    It is a challenge for NPS to keep the “wilderness” experience of national parks while encouraging visitors. Current fee and reservation policies being used at popular parks such as Acadia strike me as being somewhat elitist and counter to efforts to promote diversity of visitors. Does anyone have an answer?

    1. Acadia on my mind Post author

      Thanks for finding our 2014 story on Acadia’s efforts to preserve Isle au Haut and thanks also to you and other volunteers and the Friends of Acadia for your planned trip to work on the trails of this special island, about half owned by the NPS.
      You are right. According to a press release, Congress and the president did pass a law in 1982 that set a permanent boundary for the park on Isle au Haut, and directed the NPS to preserve island resources, provide low-density recreational experiences, preserve the character of the town of Isle au Haut and its resource-based economy, and minimize adverse effects of park visitors on the local community and its residents.The law also requires the NPS to establish a visitor carrying capacity, and review the capacity every five years. A visitor capacity of 90 day-use visitors on Isle au Haut and up to 30 campers at the Duck Harbor Campground was established by the NPS in the late 1980s, and until 2014, when it had a minor modification.

      Sure, vehicle reservation systems at National Parks can seem elitist and exclusionary. Still, there is no doubt that the vehicle reservation system on Cadillac summit in Acadia, now in its first full year, is managing parking and providing a higher quality visit for many people, while helping protect the environment. That is the overall goal of the park managers, who have to make these tough decisions that can be unpopular with some. The explosion in visits left no choice for Acadia managers and the reservation system came just in time for Cadillac. Can you imagine the traffic chaos on the summit this summer without a reservation system? Visits in June to Acadia in 2021 were up 35 percent from pre-pandemic 2019 numbers and July and August, September and October could be just as strong or nearly as strong and that is with no cruise ship passengers and fewer international tourists.

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  14. Maureen

    Thanks for sharing. I wasn’t aware of the non promote policy but recognize the value of one. We camp almost annually at Duck Harbor and relish the island solitude, claiming it has the mist beautiful sunset anywhere. And the trails are beyond compare. Let the island not change!

    1. Acadia on my mind Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Maureen. We’ve been to Isle au Haut twice over the years. We need to go back to hike to the island called the Western Ear at low tide. We also need to get the views from the “puddings” on Duck Harbor Mtn. since the mountain was covered by clouds when we hiked it many years ago during May or early June. During our most recent visit in 2010 or 2011, the August weather was fantastic and we enjoyed a spectacular sunset from Eben’s Head and then we hurried to catch the deep-red sky from Deep Cove. We also were not aware of the park service’s “non-promotion” policy for Isle au Haut. I’ll bet a lot of people didn’t know about it but it is a prominent part of the draft report. The draft management plan is an interesting report. It also advocates for a new trail to leave from the center of town but is silent on any possible locations for this trail, other than to say it could be on public and private lands. That makes me wonder whether a new trail would go to any of several mountains — maybe, just a guess, one called Mount Champlain — on the north end of Isle au Haut. I think the campground could also be reconfigured to make the lean-tos more private. We have such great memories of our last trip to the island that we are eager to return. You are lucky to make almost annual visits.

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