Friends Of Acadia Trying To Soften Sequestration Blow On Acadia National Park

Not quite a year into his job as president and chief executive officer of Friends of Acadia, David MacDonald faced the task of figuring out how best to help Acadia National Park staff cope with the federal budget sequestration. Friends of Acadia photo.

Editor's note: Budget sequestration is in full swing across the National Park System. Some impacts are highly visible, some are more subtle. At Acadia National Park, Friends of Acadia has shouldered more work to help the park staff manage things in these times of fiscal shortages.

Not a year into his role as president and chief executive officer of Friends Of Acadia, David MacDonald's task was ratcheted up a few rungs by the federal budget sequestration and its impacts on a national park that already was struggling with a thin budget.

A Maine native, one who grew up on Mount Desert Island that is the leafy, mountainous setting for Acadia National Park, Mr. MacDonald took over for Marla Byrne in May 2012, long before "sequestration" became a common part of the American vernacular. When this spring arrived, he quickly saw its fallout on the park.

“Beginning with the spring, it definitely was a big deal here because the motor roads opened a month late, and to a lot of folks who are increasingly interested in coming in the shoulder season, that was a blow," Mr. MacDonald said during a lengthy phone conversation. "So the opportunity to drive the Loop Road and then drive up Cadillac, a lot of people interpreted those road closures as Acadia is closed.

“That was disappointing for both the visitors and a lot of the businesses here who were trying to extend beyond just June, July and August," he went on. "So, that was quite a dramatic impact. Now that we’re into summer, the primary ways I think the visitor is experiencing or feeling the continued impact of the sequester is a reduction in the number of ranger-led interpretive programs that are going on in the park. Those have basically been cut in half."

Acadia's inability to hire its normal complement of seasonal rangers has meant reductions in popular and family friendly tide-pool tours with rangers and hikes to beaver ponds, as well as cuts in museum hours and programs. Visitor center hours also have been reduced, leaving unfamiliar park visitors puzzled at how to negotiate and enjoy the park that sprawls over Mount Desert Island's rumpled landscape.

"Probably the vast majority of people don't feel that, but we have folks come by and complain about that, saying 'I couldn't get my park pass,' 'Why is this closed so early?'" recounted Mr. MacDonald. "Acadia, in particular, it’s not a one-way in and one-way out park. It kind of weaves in and out of the communities, and so the visitor center plays a pretty important role in terms of orientation."

The fallout has left Friends of Acadia faced with shouldering more responsibilities in helping the park fulfill its mission.

"I don’t think 'offset' is what we’re going to be able to do, or what we're even trying to do. We feel strongly that there’s an important role for Congress and the American people to play in funding their national parks, so we’re not trying to offset or replace it," Mr. MacDonald said. "But we have been active in the community, trying to rally support for Acadia, inspiring others to help out the park in a time of need."

The advocacy group also has been putting some of its dollars to work in areas where it hasn't routinely worked.

Friends of Acadia, he said, "has been able to offer some flexibility for the park in terms of hiring some of the seasonals. They have a hiring freeze, they have (full-time employee) caps, we’ve been able to work around that a bit and use some of our funds to bring on some of the seasonals working in natural resources, or trails. As a non-profit, we just offered a little flexibility to ensure that the hits to the seasonal force aren’t as dramatic as they might have been."

In the communities surrounding the park, Friends of Acadia also has been working with businesses on raising funds for the park.

"A couple of hotels have instituted a voluntary donation program for their guests, a dollar a night per room," he said. "I hate to think that it took the sequester for that kind of thing to gain some traction, but in fact it has. I’m encouraged by that. So Friends of Acadia has been a resource for the business community in trying to explain how that’s worked elsewhere in the country.

“That’s picking up some steam where it hasn’t in the past. So having the business community more engaged and willing to help the park with some of its operating needs, I think that’s a good sign. We need more sustainable supplementary funding strategies."

With the possibility that the sequester is here to stay, Friends of Acadia officials have been looking at their strategic plan and how it can better dovetail to meet these new needs the budget cuts have created. One glaring area where the park will need help, believes Mr. MacDonald, is grappling with climate change and its impacts.

"Being here on the coast in particular, sea-level rise, greater rainfall events, the spread of invasive species that didn’t used to be able to cut it up here on the Maine coast," he said, ticking off a list of some of the impacts. "Making sure that Acadia is being thoughtful in terms of how to best be prepared for the changes that are coming our way and the way the natural systems are working is something that we really want to put some focus on.”

With the the park's personnel and program cuts brought about by sequestration, "the park staff just doesn’t have the ability to have the time and the resources to look ahead and plan ahead like that," said Mr. MacDonald. "They’re really just trying to get through this week, and next week. And the kind of positions that are being left vacant, for example are, guess what, the park botantist. They’re seen as non-essential, and that’s I think not a smart way to go long-term. So this is an area in which Friends of Acadia hopes to attract funding, bring on folks that perhaps we hire."

The organization already has had some success in that area, landing a corporate sponsorship earlier this year from Canon U.S.A. to underwrite its Wild Acadia program that focuses on natural resource protection in the park.

"They’re helping us on invasives and on water quality monitoring, really trying to study and get out ahead of these isses, working together with the park, so that’s terrific," he said. "But it’s an example of how, in my mind, the sequester and the shortages that Acadia is facing, just make the work that much more important. It’s very challenging for the natural resources staff to think about issues that are a decade down the road when they can’t figure out how to get through next week.”