There are about 155 miles of hiking trails in Acadia National Park and Gary J. Stellpflug is familiar with just about every inch of them. Stellpflug, who is trails foreman at Acadia National Park, began working in the park as a seasonal laborer in the summer of 1974, began work on trails in 1975,and first became foreman of the Acadia hiking trails crew in 1978. He left for a period in the 1990s, but returned as trails foreman and has held the position for more than 30 years. We spoke with Stellpflug in December of 2018 and then again on National Trails Day in June when he led a tour of the Valley Trail, which was extensively rehabilitated in 2017 and 2018. He discussed a broad scope of topics including the effects of the federal government shutdown in January, plans for rehabilitating trails and staying true to their historic character, how work on trails is funded and the history of Acadia National Park. For this Q&A, information was also used from Stellpflug’s annual “Acadia Trails Forever” report for 2018. Acadia Trails Forever is the name of a special endowment started in 1999 for the park. The $13 million fund to benefit the trails includes $9 million in private donations raised by the Friends of Acadia and $4 million in federal funds, mostly from the park’s entry fees.
Did the federal government shutdown have an effect on the Acadia hiking trails crew?
Gary Stellpflug: The trails crew this year is comparatively small, so we needed to scale back on what we wanted to accomplish. For the past couple of years, we have had 15 to 20 seasonal workers. We could have hired 25 this year. I have that much money. But we have only 10. It was entirely due to the shutdown. It pushed hiring back six weeks or more and it made hiring so late for us that nearly everybody on my list of applicants had taken other jobs. For some reason, the Western and Southeast regions started hiring three weeks before I could and the pool of applicants dwindled. I’m not sure what other social factors are involved. One could be that park service wages are not keeping up with the private sector right now, at least in Bar Harbor, Maine. We rarely get local applicants and they used to be the mainstay of the crew. I want to work on that and see what I can do. I did have two additional new seasonal people, but one was in a car accident and could not work and the other had housing issues. We do have two new permanent workers. It took four years to hire them because of the federal government hiring process. They will be furloughed. They won’t work year-round but they do have permanent jobs. That gives us eight permanent workers.
Volunteers and youth assist the Acadia hiking trails crew
Many people don’t know how heavily you depend on volunteers and the Acadia Youth Conservation Corps for work on the trails. The Friends of Acadia funds the youth conservation corps, which employs 16 high school students and four adult seasonal crew leaders for eight weeks each summer to work alongside the park’s trails crew. In addition, volunteers put in thousands of hours of work each year.
Stellpflug: The YCC is in the trenches again with us this year, hauling, carrying, digging and moving large rocks on Acadia hiking trails. On the Valley Trail and the Bubble & Jordan Ponds Path in 2018, they dug drainage and created gravel causeway. On Valley Cove, they hauled material and then built a few hundred feet of bog walk. It’s very similar work this year for the YCC, with a mix of large and small projects and training and educational opportunities.
Many thanks to all the volunteer efforts. Their assistance enables other crews to continue on rehabilitation efforts. The volunteer program, including individuals, groups and the Waldron’s Warriors (named after early 20th century path builder Waldron Bates), which maintain hundreds of Acadia’s Bates-style cairns, truly keep the trails system moving. Volunteers are building new bog walk along the west shore of Jordan Pond and they spend hundreds of hours cutting brush on both the east and west sides of the island.
We also have a new tool and storage shed, with almost all of the design and over 50 percent of construction efforts coming from volunteers. One volunteer, Mark Munsell worked more than 100 hours designing, organizing and working on the new shed.
History leaves a mark on many Acadia National Park trails
You see a lot of strange things on the Acadia hiking trails?
Stellpflug: There’s some things you can never figure out. I am stopping here on the Valley Trail because this spot is weird. See how the road comes down and it goes up here about 20 feet and then it goes back down 20 feet? This road was probably built in the 1760s and it shows up on maps in the early 1800s. While the large portion of the Valley Trail was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, this section at the start of the Valley Trail was part of a road to Southwest Harbor from Somesville in the 1760s. Road builders were economically driven. Why didn’t they just not go straight? I don’t have an answer.
You are planning to work this summer on a small area of the Cadillac West Face Trail, one of the steeper trails in the park?
Stellpflug: There is one tiny section we want to rehabilitate. It is no more than 200 yards from the Bubble Pond parking area. Unfortunately, a lot of times when we alleviate erosion, we end up making something easier and that is never our intent. This is a place that has been eroding for years. It is slick when it rains and it is slick when it is icy. It just gets wider and wider and trees are dying on either side. We might put in a wooden ladder but we will probably put in two rungs. If people want to clamor around, they can, but if it is icy or slippery, they can use the rungs.
The trails crew in 2017 began a multi-year effort to rebuild the abandoned Seaside Path, an historic path that links the Jordan Pond area with the village of Seal Harbor. What is the status of the project?
Stellpflug: We made quite a bit of progress in 2017, but in 2018, we contracted with a crew from the Appalachian Mountain Club that had worked on similar paths. We prefer our own crews, but the AMC team did excellent work. Over four weeks, they graveled and finished almost 600 feet of the 4-foot-wide trail. Friends of Acadia crew leaders also oversaw volunteers that assisted. We will be following the historical route.
What’s an example of trying to make a trail look like it did historically?
Stellpflug: With new culverts, we use plastic unless we are replacing historic culvert that was stone. Then we will use stone. Notice that you will not see the plastic on the culverts under the trail. It is one of the things we strive for. That’s why there are head stones on each end to hide the plastic. Everything we do is a rehabilitation which means we can use modern materials but we strive for a look. One section of the Valley Trail was all gullies and roots three years ago. We put in steps. This trail historically had cut stones so we used cut stones. We actually cut the stones ourselves on site. We try to build to the historically significant period.
Acadia expanded under a program in the New Deal
Acadia National Park is about 50,000 acres, including about 13,000 acres under conservation easement. Generally, all the land was donated. John D. Rockefeller Jr. alone donated about 10,000 acres. But there is some interesting history about how the park grew during the New Deal program to help lift the country out of the Great Depression.
Stellpflug: On the west side of the Mount Desert Island, there was not a lot of park land until the Depression. Suddenly, in the 1930s there was a lot of park land. Under a federal program across the country, the government would buy farms that had gone under. Acadia is an entirely donated park. We generally have never bought a piece of land with park funds. The government did buy land on the western side, but for the park, it was given to us by a different agency.
What are some major projects for the Acadia hiking trails crew for this summer?
Stellpflug: Kurt Diederich’s Climb and the Jordan Cliffs Trail. We will be on Kurt Diederich’s for two months with Youth Corps and three or five federal workers constantly working up there. We will get a lot done. We will replace and repair stone walls and steps that are collapsing. We will do a lot of drainage work, retaining walls, and put in bench cuts in areas where the trail has gullies. With a bench cut, we cut a little bench in a side slope that has been eroded. You end up walking on a surface that is flat. It drains better and people stay on it. On Jordan Cliffs, we will also be doing a lot of stone work and erosion control. We will do everything we possibly can on Jordan Cliffs. That has a lot of old stone work and iron work. We will replace or add iron rungs. Whatever needs to be done, we will do.
Will the Valley Cove Trail reopen this year? It is a beautiful historic trail that is located on the east side of St. Sauveur Mountain and goes along the west shore of Somes Sound. The trail crew did a lot of work last year in some blistering hot weather.
Stellpflug: The trail has been closed since the autumn of 2016 and it is closed each year during peregrine falcon nesting season. We kept the trail closed for safety reasons. Last year, the crew constructed 140 feet of raised causeway and 1,000 feet of benchcut. We reset or added 384 stone steps with almost 1,700 feet of retaining wall repaired or added. The Youth Conservation Corps built more than 200 feet of double wide bogwalk on the Valley Cove trail. We are hoping that with about three weeks of effort by a three to four person crew, we can open the trail by the end of this year.
What is a rule of thumb for building steps or other structures on a trail?
Stellpflug: At a 10 percent grade, which is not much, maybe one foot up for 10 feet, you have to make sure the trail is drained and stable. Once you hit 20 percent, you need to build structures. We have such an endowment from the Friends of Acadia, and with professional crews, we can maintain that standard.
The best erosion control on a trail is a well defined, well constructed and well designed trail that people use. Look at Emery Path and the built trails. The ones that are highly built have lasted 100 years.
Acadia hiking trails benefit from different sources of financing
How do you decide where to use money for trails?
Stellpflug: It is the federal money that is project driven. In general, we can use Acadia Trails Forever money where we need it. However, we sometimes get federal funding because we can use Acadia Trails Forever money as matching funds. That helps us get more federal money. We get more points because we can lever FOA money. I’ll get federal money for a project and that’s where the money goes. Sometimes, we will get complaints, “Why are you fixing this when that looks so much worse?” A lot of times it’s because we have the money to fix A and not B.
FOA funds all the safety and maintenance across the park, including cutting blowdowns and fixing signs.
Sometimes, an individual will donate money through FOA for a specific trail such as Deer Brook or Canada Cliffs. We’ll say, “That is part of our plan. Therefore, we will put the money to that specific use.” But the FOA is generally excellent at saying, “We may not be able to meet a request of fixing your trail.” We adjust. There is a fund called the Grace Fund [established at Friends of Acadia by the widow and other family members of J. Peter Grace, who died in 1995, and was the longest serving chief executive of W.R. Grace Co. He started bringing his family to Mt. Desert Island in the 1940s]. We used the Grace Fund in 2018 to help pay for replacing a new bridge on the Precipice Trail that was destroyed by rocks or ice during the winter that year. The Grace Fund is often used for bridges. I get money from the Grace Fund every year.
What is your favorite trail in the park?
Stellpflug: Acadia is a spectacular park. It certainly is. What day is it and where are we? That is my favorite day and trail in Acadia.
Thank you, Gary Stellpflug
Gary Stellpflug at work on the Valley Trail in 2017
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Excellent interview! Gary and Acadia trail crew rock!
I just love Gary’s answer to the question, “What is your favorite trail in the park?” He is the Waldron Bates of the 21st century. Acadia is small and relatively flat by the standards of Grand Canyon, Yosemite, etc. Its well-built and maintained trails and carriage roads allow millions to enjoy nature without destroying it.
Jim — You cannot sum it up better than that. If the nice sunny weather keeps up, Acadia’s trails could be tested again with another year of record visitation.