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Superintendent’s View

Acadia National Park Superintendent Sheridan SteeleSuperintendent’s View: Science and Partnerships to Improve Acadia
By Sheridan Steele
Spring 2014 Friends of Acadia Journal

In the mid-1990s, our park staff was surprised to discover that fish in Hodgdon and Seal Cove Ponds were contaminated with mercury. Years of research later, Acadia is now one of the best-studied locations in the world when it comes to mercury and conservation. Research in Acadia has contributed to policies to reduce mercury pollution from power plants and other major sources. While mercury emissions are now declining, mercury pollution is still a problem for much of our wildlife.

Science is critical to making Acadia the special place it is and keeping it that way for our children and grandchildren. It helps us improve all aspects of park management— from protecting wildlife to preserving our coastal historical sites to keeping visitors safe and healthy. It helps us overcome challenges that we face, improve visitors’ experiences, and achieve our mission to preserve one of our country’s national treasures unimpaired for future generations.

The park’s need for scientific research far outstrips our ability to support it through staff or funding. That is why the park helped to create the nonprofit Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park to develop a campus dedicated to scientific research, education, and communication—the Schoodic Education and Research Center (SERC). I am excited by how this emerging organization and facility will complement the efforts of Friends of Acadia to accomplish our shared objectives at Acadia.

SERC’s campus contains classrooms, labs, meeting rooms, exhibits, and housing, all in short supply elsewhere in the park. A leader among the 20 research learning centers in national parks across the country, the SERC campus is becoming a hub of intellectual and creative activity. The programs and partnerships among the Schoodic Institute, FOA, and others are helping to attract more researchers, educators, artists, and partner organizations than the park can recruit and support on its own, and advancing science and science education throughout Acadia and well beyond the park’s boundaries.

One example is helping students, volunteers, and everyday visitors get their hands dirty doing real science, so-called “citizen science.” Take the mercury research I mentioned earlier—staff from the Schoodic Institute, University of Maine, and the park worked with teachers and students throughout northern New England to explore why mercury concentrations are high for wildlife in some streams, wetlands, ponds, and lakes but not others. (Here in Acadia, for example, fish in some ponds have very high concentrations of mercury but fish in other ponds seem fine.) This project has been so successful at advancing mercury research and education that it is now being replicated in 40 national parks across the country, led by UMaine and the US Geological Survey.

This year and in coming years, partners at Acadia will continue to expand our professional research and citizen science programs. We will address the challenge of how we can best protect and preserve Acadia’s natural and cultural resources in a rapidly changing environment—in a time of more major storms, rising sea levels, spreading invasive species, and other challenges. These efforts are very much a part of Friends of Acadia’s strategic vision for a resilient and wild Acadia, and FOA staff and volunteers will be building upon the research facilitated by the park and Schoodic Institute and applying it to on-the-ground planning and restoration projects within key park watersheds.

We are not stopping there, though. Schoodic Institute and the park are hosting and working with National Geographic, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Natural History Museum in London, and many other organizations to develop a new international Citizen Science Association to foster communication, collaboration, and professional development in citizen science. We want to make Acadia an international leader in this budding field—we think it has the potential to improve science, conservation, and education here and worldwide.

SERC’s campus can also host residential education programs that we do not have the facilities to provide elsewhere in the park. The Schoodic Education Adventure program, funded in part with a grant from L.L.Bean through Friends of Acadia, gives middle school students from throughout the state a three-day immersion in the wonders of Acadia’s coast, forests, and night sky. And last year’s efforts by FOA to expand Acadia’s Teacher-Ranger-Teacher program benefited from the capacity to have two of the seven TRTs based at SERC for the summer.

Achieving our ambitious goals for youth engagement and resource sustainability will require both the growing capacity for research and science education at Schoodic Institute and the established expertise at FOA for turning research into action and engaging stakeholders, volunteers, and philanthropy in “on the ground” projects in the park and communities. Acadia is fortunate indeed to have such effective partners, promising to make what is already a world-class place even more special, to make visitor experiences more inspiring, and to help us preserve this place and experience for future generations.