UPDATE on 2/15/2022: Reaction from Jack Russell was added.
UPDATE on 2/18/2022: Gary Stellpflug thanks people for their comments on his planned retirement.
Gary J. Stellpflug, longtime foreman of the Acadia National Park Trails Crew, said he is planning to retire from the National Park Service this year, after leading a sweeping rehabilitation of the historic Acadia hiking trails during his tenure.
“I’ve been here long enough,” Stellpflug said in an exclusive interview. “It’s time for somebody else to step in.”
He said there is no exact date for his retirement, but it will be before the start of a new fiscal year on Oct. 1. He said he wants to help in a transition to a new Acadia hiking trails foreman and is working with Keith Johnston, chief of maintenance, on a succession plan.
Stellpflug, who has been foreman of the Acadia trails crew for more than 35 years, helped launch a major effort to restore and maintain Acadia hiking trails after Acadia became the first national park in the country with an endowment for a trail system.
Acadia hiking trails protected for generations to come
The Acadia Trails Forever campaign, a partnership between the park and the Friends of Acadia, started in 1999, raised $9 million in private donations and $4 million in federal funds to help rehabilitate and maintain trails and pay for related programs such as Summit Stewards and Acadia Youth Conservation Corps.
Stellpflug also uses the endowment for matching funds to obtain more federal money for trail work.
“This will be my last year-end report for ATF,” Stellpflug wrote at the end of his annual report on the trails program for Friends of Acadia. “Sometime within the next few months, I will be retiring from the National Park Service.”
“It has been a pleasure belonging to this amazing partnership. The ATF program ensures Acadia’s trails’ protection for generations to come. I truly appreciate the confidence shown me to steward our efforts. Thank you all so much.”
After publication of this article, online tributes poured in for Stellpflug, including from Jack Russell, former nine-year board member of the Friends of Acadia and now honorary trustee.
“By my historian measure, Gary has given more years to the care of Acadia that any other worker, ever. He knows the history of our park and its trails and has built and rebuilt with a craftsman’s skills and respect for those who built before him,” Russell wrote on Facebook on the Friends of Acadia timeline where we posted the story. “He has taught hundreds if not thousands how to put stones in place and leave no trace. He has done his work with wisdom and wit. His contributions will endure for centuries in our stones and our hearts. Bravo, Gary!”
Stellpflug said he was “truly stunned” by all the “far too gracious remarks” on his work and planned retirement. “Remember, our work on your trails has been accomplished with backing from devoted Acadia National Park staff and gifts from the Acadia Trails Forever program at FoA. Also, of course, the truly talented and extremely hard working individuals of the trail crew, the most enthusiastic team I have ever had the honor to work with. ”
In the report for Acadia Trails Forever, Stellpflug poses some tough questions that will face his successor and others including the struggle to hire seasonal trail workers in Acadia for a job that is often strenuous and demanding outside work in an area with a high cost of housing. Last year, the Acadia trails program had 17 federal employees, the smallest number in recent years.
Climate change, labor shortage affect Acadia hiking trails
Stellpflug said hiring for seasonal workers is a long-term problem for the trails crew, and raises many issues at a time when use of the trails is rising amid record annual visits.
“Is the application process a byzantine mess? Is it purely a lack of housing? Why should workers labor hard when they can get the same pay in a local air-conditioned store? Are people avoiding outdoor employment?”
He said another issue is how to maintain Acadia hiking trails and their integrity in the face of climate change consequences. He pointed to June 9 when a short, intense rain storm forced the temporary closure of 10 miles of carriage roads and also damaged, sometimes heavily, Acadia hiking trails such as Schooner Head Path, Gorge Path, and the Hadlock Brook Trail, the Compass Harbor Trail, the north end of Jesup Path and the Maple Spring Trail to Sargent Mountain. Acadia calls the storm one of the most exceptional weather events in the park’s history with more than 5 inches of rain falling in less than 3 hours..
Crews repaired other trails damaged by the rain storm, but the Maple Spring Trail is still closed and no decision has been made yet on the trail’s future, according to Stellpflug. Future options include full restoration, various stages of rehabilitations, relocation or full or partial deletion. Stellpflug said 50 percent of the historic stonework in the Maple Spring gorge was devastated beyond recognition.
Over the years, Stellpflug said the crew has completed much of the work on Acadia hiking trails that was recommended in the park’s 2002 “Hiking Trails Management Plan,” including a rehabilitation of the Maple Spring Trail. Even with all the work over the past 20 years, there is still about $9 million in deferred maintenance on the trails, according to the park.
Acadia hiking trails National Register of Historic Places nomination
The Acadia hiking trails management plan called for building new trails, rehabilitating and maintaining existing trails, and reopening abandoned historic trails. The 2002 report was followed by two extensive 2006 volumes on the history and condition of trails – the “Acadia Trails Treatment Plan” and “Pathmakers” – by the NPS’s Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation in Boston.
Stellpflug said “Pathmakers” laid the groundwork for what would be a fitting cap to his career – placing the Mount Desert Island Hiking Trail System on the National Register of Historic Places. If approved, the pending nomination, which includes 117 miles of trails created between 1844 and 1942 mostly within Acadia, would provide official recognition of the historical and cultural importance of the trails and make them eligible for federal grants for historic preservation.
The nomination, filed by the Maine Historic Preservation Office and the NPS, is expected to be approved in a couple of months, he said. “I feel delighted about that,” he said.
In another important accomplishment to enhance the trails and improve safety, Stellpflug, starting in 2001, worked with now-retired Ranger Charlie Jacobi and others to restore Bates-style cairns, which had fallen into disuse. The distinctive cairns are named for Waldron Bates, chair of the Bar Harbor Village Improvement Association Path Committee from 1900-1909, who first designed them.
Under Stellpflug, the trails crew has restored abandoned historic trails on Mount Desert Island like Homans Path, Schooner Head Path, and the Bubble & Jordan Ponds Path and built new trails that connect to villages or campgrounds such as the Great Meadow Loop Trail, Seaside Path near Jordan Pond, the Duck Brook Connector off Route 3 north of Bar Harbor and the Quarry and Otter Cove Trails, which link the Blackwoods Campground to Gorham Mountain.
”There’s some things that won’t ever get done, but in general, I think we have done really well,” he said.
Long Pond Trail being restored in style of Civilian Conservation Corps
Stellpflug and crew members rehabilitate Acadia hiking trails in the style of when they were first constructed, by early village improvement path committees or the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, for example.
For the past two years, crews have been rehabilitating the Long Pond Trail, which Stellpflug calls “a masterpiece of CCC high construction,” built in 1936 by untrained CCC recruits who hiked in from a work camp in Southwest Harbor. For some of the materials to restore the trail, Acadia crews used the original gravel pits established by the New Deal workers.
Many of the trails rehabilitated over the years are highly crafted with stone steps or staircases such as the Cadillac Cliffs Trail, the Gorge Path, Kurt Diederich’s Climb, the Razorback Trail and the Beech Mountain South Ridge Trail.
Stellpflug is noted for his innovative work on the trails. In the early 1980s, he introduced wooden “bog walk” on Acadia trails, for example, to help protect fragile areas, according to the NPS.
Stellpflug said he began at Acadia as a seasonal worker on the trails about 1974, and then became a masonry worker.
He said he ran the trails crew for about 10 years as a masonry worker, but was not technically classified as a foreman until the position was created in the mid-1980s and he was promoted.
He left the park for about eight years and later returned as trails foreman in 1999.
Stellpflug said he is not sure what he will do in retirement, but he said he will have enough time to think about that after he retires. He said he likely will volunteer in some capacity and he will enjoy the outdoors.
“There is plenty to do,” he said. “I will not be bored. I have a house list a mile long.”
Hard work, camaraderie and scenic vistas along Acadia’s trails
Over the course of Stellplug’s career in Acadia National Park, he was quick to lend a hand, share a laugh and inspire others to be good stewards of Acadia hiking trails, as he has been. Here are some scenes of him at work and at play, and samples of his and his crew’s handiwork on Acadia hiking trails.