Federal government shutdown slows Acadia in winter

UPDATE 1/28/2019:  David MacDonald, president of Friends of Acadia, issued a statement that was added to this story.

An agreement to end the partial federal government shutdown came just in time for visitors and year-round staff at Acadia National Park in Maine.

Winter visitor center for Acadia Natioal Park

The end of the partial federal shutdown means the winter visitor center for Acadia National Park at the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce office will be staffed again by rangers.

While the park was kept open during the 35-day-long shutdown and the closure came at the slowest time of year for the park and had little economic effect on surrounding communities, almost all of the park’s 80-90 full-time staff, including Superintendent Kevin Schneider, were put on furlough. Additionally, the shutdown during Acadia in winter delayed work on a critical transportation plan years in the making.

David MacDonald, president and CEO of the Friends of Acadia, a nonprofit organization that works closely with the National Park Service to protect and improve the park for public use, said the shutdown created “a terrible situation” for park staff. It resulted in “a very significant operations backlog” at Acadia, the country’s eighth-most visited national park, and basically left a small number of law enforcement rangers to run the park and work without pay over the holidays, he said.

“I think it’s been devastating for park staff,” MacDonald said in an article that was first published in the National Parks Traveler. “There are a lot of important professionals in various departments across the park that have been kept on the sidelines at a very important time of year for planning for Acadia.”

President Donald Trump on Friday agreed to a measure that would fund the government for three weeks and clear employees in Interior and dozens of other agencies to again work, with no provisions to pay for the wall he wants to build on the border with Mexico. Trump left open the possibility the government could shut again as of Feb. 15.

Ice covers the granite cliffs on Cadillac. summit road.

Huge sheets of Ice cover the granite cliffs along the summit road to Cadillac Mountain during Acadia in winter.

Acadia National Park transportation plan due early this year

MacDonald said the transportation plan is a major undertaking for the park and was put on hold during the shutdown of Acadia in winter. That will sadly be put several weeks behind, MacDonald said, adding that he was concerned the shutdown undermined the morale of park staff and could discourage young people from considering a career in the National Park Service.

Last April, the park released a  215-page draft Environmental Impact Statement for a traffic and transportation plan. The document’s preferred alternative calls for vehicle reservations for an additional fee (most likely less than $10) at Cadillac Summit Road, the Ocean Drive corridor, and the north lot of the Jordan Pond House from about mid-May to mid-October. The park plans to release a final EIS early this year. That would include the park’s final approach to managing traffic. The transportation plan is intended to take effect in 2020.

The plan is crucial for local businesses and visitors to the park, which is seeing a sharp increase in crowds during peak times.

Beehive in Acadia National Park

The 520-foot Beehive looms over Sand Beach during the winter.

Visitation to Acadia last year was more than 3.5 million, up 40 percent from 2.5 million in 2010.

MacDonald issued a statement on Monday saying in part:

“All of us at Friends of Acadia are deeply relieved that the shutdown is over, but we are also mindful that it will be a while yet before Acadia is ‘back to normal.’ We welcome our friends at the National Park Service back to their jobs today and offer our full partnership and support in jointly tackling the important work ahead. FOA will also continue to advocate strongly with our elected officials to let them know that another shutdown must be avoided”

“The handful of park rangers who were not furloughed have done a tremendous job keeping an eye on Acadia, working long hours without pay and deserve our thanks for their commitment.”

Chris Graten, operations manager at the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said there may have been  a slight effect on local businesses during the shutdown of Acadia in winter. “The impact is marginal currently,” Graten said in a phone interview.

While some local hotels, restaurants, and other merchants remain open year-round on Mount Desert Island, many major restaurants and hotels close for the winter.

People with the chamber filled a possible major gap for visitor information during  Acadia in winter while the shutdown was in effect. The park in the past two years located its winter visitor center in the downtown Bar Harbor offices of the chamber at 2 Cottage St., working side by side with the chamber.

While rangers did not staff the center during the shutdown, the chamber continued to staff the center each day and they answered questions about access and parking, for example, from park visitors and handed out materials, Graten said.

Huguenot Head

Huguenot Head, the 17th-highest peak in Acadia National Park, towers over the Tarn during winter.

Portions of this article were first published in the National Parks Traveler, and reprinted here with permission.