As Comment Period Closes, Mainers Weigh In On Proposed Fee Increases At Acadia National Park

Nov 7, 2017

The next time you buy a pass to drive into Acadia National Park, the price may have nearly tripled. The Trump administration is proposing a substantial increase in fees at Acadia and 16 other national parks, in part to help address an estimated $11 billion in infrastructure needs within the system nationwide.

Atop the windy summit of Acadia National Park’s Cadillac Mountain, children scramble along stone walkways to take in spectacular views of Frenchman’s Bay. Their families now pay $25 admission to enter Acadia during peak season, but the Interior Department is proposing to increase that fee to $70.

“I guess I’m relatively cynical about the motives here,” said David Oppenheim, a professional counselor from Camden who drove to the mountaintop on a recent Saturday. “I think it’s just another way of discouraging the public’s access to the national parks.”

Oppenheim says he has heard about the Trump administration’s plans to raise admission fees to defray maintenance costs at the parks, estimated at $7 million for Acadia alone. But critics charge that the additional money generated by higher fees barely begins to address the problem systemwide, and Oppenheim says he thinks he knows who the real losers will be if the changes are made.

David Oppenheim of Camden at the summit of Cadillac Mountain.
Credit A.J. Higgins / Maine Public

“Tourists who come here from a long way will have to shell out the money — they’re not going to miss things,” he says. “But the ordinary Mainer who comes here for the weekend or several times a summer is going to find that they’re going to be more careful with their money, and they’re not going to want to come as often. So it’s going to have the effect of discouraging attendance at the national park.”

Attendance has never been better at Acadia. Park officials reported a record 3.3 million visits last year, a half-million visits more than the year before. Unofficial estimates by the park service this year indicate that Acadia was close to surpassing three million visitors at the end of September.

Park visitor Susan Armstrong of Pennsylvania agrees that fee increases will likely discourage some from spending time at Acadia.

“But then again, we have the cost of running the park and how will that be maintained,” she says. “Because this park is beautifully maintained. Will it continue to be beautifully maintained if they can’t raise the prices?”

“I’m actually encouraged by that response,” says David MacDonald, president and CEO of the Friends of Acadia, which promotes conservation and good stewardship throughout Acadia’s nearly 50,000 acres. “Park visitors are aware of the challenges the park faces, and if they believe it takes a balanced mix of revenue sources to address them, that’s real progress.”

Next week, MacDonald’s board will meet to formalize its response to the Department of Interior, which has set up a website to accept public comment on the proposed fee increases. He says park supporters are already demanding a more even-handed and comprehensive approach to confronting the mounting infrastructure challenges.

“I just hope that the Department of the Interior will take seriously the public comment that they get during this 30-day period and give consideration toward a more balanced approach,” he says.

In fact, the 30-day comment period has generated nearly as much controversy as the fee increases themselves.

“Thirty days is vastly insufficient,” says John Garder with the National Parks Conservation Association.

Garder says the magnitude of the proposal demands not only a longer comment period, but also field hearings in Bar Harbor.

“The last time there was a fee increase, it took place over quite some time and over the course of seven months. During that time there was ample opportunity for the public to have their views amplified and recognized by the department and ultimately not all of those fee increases actually happened,” he says.

Inside the Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop, Joe Minutolo waits on customers on a sunny November day. Like other merchants in the area, he is concerned about what will happen when park visitors come off the mountain. And in a business environment where financial success is measured in rentals, T-shirts or lobster dinners, the higher park fees could translate into weaker sales.

“We’re worried about losing people obviously, and we all worry about the people who are on the economic edge of being able to go on vacation anyway,” he says. “It’s one of those things we’ll have to see where it goes — but there is some definite concern.”

Those merchant concerns will be fleshed out in writing by the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, which is also formulating a response to the department’s website. Others can submit comments until Nov. 23.