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Acadia Takes a New Look at Park Passes

Friends of Acadia supports the effort, and hopes you will too

By Aimee Beal Church
Spring 2014 Friends of Acadia Journal

Cyclists stop at the Sand Beach Entrance Station. There are more than a dozen places in and around Acadia to purchase entrance passes during the high season, so it can be a quick and easy part of your visit. Credit: National Park Service.

Cyclists stop at the Sand Beach Entrance Station. There are more than a dozen places in and around Acadia to purchase entrance passes during the high season, so it can be a quick and easy part of your visit. National Park Service photo.

Back in 1987, when Acadia started charging an entrance fee, I wasn’t the only “local” who felt resistant and perhaps a bit hurt to be required to pay to enter “my park.” Wasn’t I born here? Didn’t my ancestors live here before Acadia even existed? Didn’t I need to go through the park just to go about my daily life?

Well…yes, yes, and no. Just 15 years old at the time, I didn’t have a learner’s permit, let alone depend on park roads for a daily commute. (At 15, I didn’t even have to pay, though I didn’t know it then—kids under 16 were and still are free.) But with a few more years’ wisdom I realized that my first two “arguments” were also, well, silly. If I had been born at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, could I get an exemption from the toll on the Tobin Bridge? Of course not—no more than descendants of that city’s grand old families get free tuition at Boston University. We place many valuable resources in the care of state and federal governments, agreeing to support them collectively with our taxes but also often agreeing that those who use them most should support them a bit more.

But the pride I now feel when I purchase my Acadia entrance pass goes beyond that. “No thanks,” I say to the friendly ranger who offers me a carriage road map along with my pass. This is my park and I know it like the back of my hand. On my car windshield, the annual pass sticker with its distinctive artwork and proud “I support Acadia National Park” proclaims my allegiance no matter where I drive. I’m content for my taxes to support all 401 units of the National Park Service, but Acadia is my park and I want to see it the most lovingly cared for, best-supported park it can be. The entrance fee program, which keeps 80% of dollars collected here in Acadia, is one way to ensure that all visitors “give back” a little to Acadia.

If you’re reading this, chances are you agree. So why tell my little tale of enlightenment now? Because the entrance fee is fair only if everybody pays it, and up until now this has been a real problem at Acadia.

Acadia’s history of having been created through hundreds of individual gifts of land contributes to its unique character but also gives the park a complex boundary, interwoven with the surrounding communities. It’s likely there are more ways to enter the park than there are park rangers. There’s really no practical way to sell passes at every entrance or check that all visitors have paid. Plus, many people don’t realize a fee is required whenever and however they enter the park, whether they’ve passed by a fee station or not. Currently, two out of three Acadia visitors pay their entry fee, but that rate is far lower at spots like the Great Head trailhead where “savvy” visitors park to visit Sand Beach for free.

Acadia's 2014 annual pass, featuring artwork by Jacob Legutko.

Acadia’s 2014 annual pass, featuring artwork by local elementary student Jacob Legutko (see story in Updates).

After studying the issue for the past few years, park rangers are now working to increase those numbers. Chief Ranger Stuart West says that the most common response he hears to this news is “It’s about time!” He adds, “people see there’s a direct relationship between what the park brings in for fees and what the park can or can’t do. With sequestration, this especially hit home.” The first step is a shift from annual pass window decals to a wallet card. Once signed by up to two pass holders, the card can be used only by those holders (a photo ID will be required) entering the park in any passenger vehicle, or by bicycle or on foot. One pass will cover everyone in a vehicle. Weekly passes will still be issued as an auto hangtag, and existing window decals will remain current until they expire this year.

The second step will be educating visitors. New signs wherever visitors drive into Acadia will clarify that a pass is required. Yes, this includes the Eagle Lake carriage road entrance, Parkman Mountain lot, Echo Lake Beach, and all those other lots right off state roads. Throughout the park, rangers will be checking for valid passes (remember to display yours in a hangtag or on the dashboard). At the Cadillac summit, passless visitors will be asked to purchase one at the gift shop; elsewhere, rangers will give a couple of warnings before they write up a ticket. If a car’s occupants have already hit the trails/carriage roads/beach, rangers will leave a bright green informational card under the windshield wiper.

West acknowledges that even well-intentioned visitors can find it inconvenient to purchase a pass if, say, they’re driving straight from Southwest Harbor to Echo Lake Beach. It’s helpful to know that passes are available at some local businesses and town offices; call the park at 207-288-3338 or visit feesandreservations.htm to find a nearby location. Online pass sales would certainly simplify the situation and West says that important step is on the way, but the Park Service needs to address this at the national level before NPS websites can sell passes for specific parks.

Speaking of fairness, how about tour buses and other commercial operators that bring large groups of visitors into Acadia? They’re all supposed to have a permit and pay a fee to cover the entire group, but compliance has been inconsistent there, as well. New commercial use permitting rules now will make payment both easier and more enforceable.

The next time I walk, bike, or drive into Acadia, if a park ranger asks whether I’ve paid the entry fee I’ll willingly pull out my handsome new Acadia pass card and prove that “I support Acadia National Park.” And for my car window, there’s always a Friends of Acadia membership sticker to proclaim my allegiance.

AIMEE BEAL CHURCH is the communications and outreach coordinator at Friends of Acadia.