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