Editor’s Note: This is part three of a three part series looking at the next 100 years of Acadia National Park. Be sure to also read part one, “How climate change could change Acadia over the next 100 years,” and part two, “How growing tourism could change Acadia over the next 100 years.”
Planning for change is a big shift for U.S. national park management, which for decades, operated by an essential doctrine of ensuring that nothing should ever change.
This stems from something called the “The Leopold Report,” a paper submitted in 1963 to the Secretary of the Interior by an advisory board of scientists chaired by noted conservationist and scientist A. Starker Leopold.
Officially called “Wildlife Management in the National Parks,” the Leopold Report was the basis for policies and planning in the national park system, which today includes more than 400 sites that draw more than 300 million annual visits.
In the report, the advisory board stated that the objective of every national park and monument should be to recreate “a reasonable illusion of primitive America … using the utmost in skill, judgment, and ecologic sensitivity.”
“[Leopold] came up with a statement that national parks were supposed to preserve vignettes of primitive America,” said Miller-Rushing. “That stuck around in the park service culture for a long time, and in many ways is still there, that we’re supposed to be preserving things as they were historically.”
In 2012, the National Park System Advisory Board revisited the Leopold Report in an effort “to advance park stewardship during a time of unrelenting change.”
The advisory board concluded “the overarching goal of NPS resource management should be to steward NPS resources for continuous change that is not yet fully understood, in order to preserve ecological integrity and cultural and historical authenticity, provide visitors with transformative experiences, and form the core of a national conservation land- and seascape.”
This “continuous change” includes the effects of climate change, as well as the rapidly growing human population and changes in visitor use of parks.
“Keeping things the same… We realize it’s an impossible task,” Miller-Rushing said. “So we’re shifting to managing for change in a way that allows ecosystems to keep functioning — and functioning well — and also maintaining historical authenticity and the integrity of our cultural resources.”
A part of this shift in Acadia includes a new Wild Acadia Initiative, in which Acadia National Park and the National Park Service are working with the nonprofit organizations Friends of Acadia and Maine Natural History Observatory to restore natural ecosystems and improve the resilience of the natural and cultural resources in and around the park.
In addition, park officials are brainstorming solutions to other challenges. A recent climate change workshop, for example, highlighted needs to improve emergency response plans for extreme weather conditions, engage the community and have more flexibility in staffing, budgeting and management practices.
In short, said Miller-Rushing, “We are having to change how we manage the park.”
Yet protecting a natural resource like Acadia takes, well, resources. The park today has a $45 million maintenance backlog, defined as necessary work on roads, bridges, visitor centers, trails and campground that has been delayed for at least one year.
In addition to planning for climate change and an unprecedented number of visitors, finding the finances to support the existing park is perhaps its most daunting challenge.
Looking forward, alternative sources of funding and staffing, as well as new partnerships with local organizations, may be required to accomplish all the work deemed necessary to keep the park running smoothly.
Sunlight danced over the pebbles at the bottom of Jordan Pond, the deepest, clearest body of water in Acadia National Park. A loon surfaced near the boat landing at the pond’s south end, its sharp black beak glistening in the sun. And just uphill, people lunched on the famous popovers at Jordan Pond House.
On the opposite end of the pond, around a bend and out of sight, a group of three researchers shuffled about in a Zodiac inflated boat beside a large buoy, carefully handling high-tech equipment.
“A lot of people don’t realize how much science is actually going on in the park,” said the boat’s driver, Acadia National Park biologist Bill Gawley.
Gawley monitors air and water quality in the park, and for the past three years, he’s worked with researchers from the University of Maine on what’s known as the Jordan Pond Buoy Project. Anchored at the north end of the pond, the $20,000 buoy collects a wide range of data about water quality and weather.
The water source for the town of Mount Desert, Jordan Pond is off limits to swimming, though paddling and small motorboats are allowed. In addition to being the clearest body of water in Acadia, it’s also thought to be the clearest lake in all of Maine, Gawley said.
A big part of the Jordan Pond Buoy Project is learning more about the pond’s remarkably clear water — understanding why it’s so clear and how that clarity might change in the future.
Funded by a grant from Canon USA, the Jordan Pond Buoy monitors water temperature at different depths, acidity and clarity, dissolved oxygen and organic matter content, and — above the surface — wind speeds and assorted weather data. Every 15 minutes, this information is relayed to Jordan Pond House and presented on mounted computer screens.
Throughout the past decade, the clarity of Jordan Pond has been slowly decreasing, and according to data collected from the buoy, this could stem from declining acidity in the lake is allowing more organic matter to dissolve in the water.
Researchers have tied this slow change to less polluted air, a result of the Clean Air Act of 1970, and has improved the overall ecosystem of the lake. “It could be a good thing if the water is a little less clear,” Gawley said. “If you’re a fish.”
Changes in Acadia National Park — to the air, the water, the flora and fauna and the manmade infrastrastructure and rules that govern it — are inevitable. Park officials and climate scientists today are striving to prepare Acadia for what’s ahead.
Preventing change, as the rusticators found, is only an ideal. Looking forward, the best chance for Acadia to weather what’s coming is finding harmony between the two forces exerting the most pressure on the park: man and nature.
In small ways, that’s already starting. When the Jordan Park Buoy was launched, for instance, it was painted yellow and encircled by three bright red-orange mooring buoys — a spectacle that many park visitors called an eyesore.
In response, the research team painted the buoy grey and the mooring buoys white to fit the scenery, a compromise to harmony between present and future that is critical to securing the next 100 years in Acadia National Park.