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Preserving Acadia’s Historic Roadside Views

It takes more than a chainsaw to reopen overgrown vistas

By Rebecca Cole-Will
Winter 2014 Friends of Acadia Journal

Acadia National Park’s historic motor roads began in 1922 as the vision of John D. Rockefeller Jr. The Park Loop Road and associated routes in the 33- mile system are a stunning example of design and engineering. It’s easy to marvel at the carved bedrock and cliff’s-edge curves along these well-engineered roads, but the system’s superb landscape design may not be so easily appreciated by visitors as they drive around the Loop or to the Cadillac Summit. This is precisely what the road’s designers had in mind, as their intent was to create a road system that would harmonize with its surroundings.

Rockefeller personally funded many of Acadia’s motor road projects and, as with his network of carriage roads, was intimately involved in their planning, design, and construction. His influence also extended well beyond Acadia: Rockefeller helped to set high standards of quality for National Park roadways and landscapes through direct sponsorship of projects in other parks and through close personal relationships with the early directors of the National Park Service.

But while Mr. Rockefeller and his engineers carefully planned the alignment and construction of the roads, they did not do the same for the pullouts and vistas. In all but a few cases, the pullouts were created in the field at the time of construction. Rock dynamited from mountainside ledges to create a level “bench” for the roadbed was then used as fill on the downhill side, creating the massive retaining walls and pulloffs along the roadsides.

Photos from the 1920s and today show how trees have altered the viewing experience from the Otter Cliffs area of Ocean Drive. NPS photo.Photos from the 1920s and today show how trees have altered the viewing experience from the Otter Cliffs area of Ocean Drive. NPS photo.Managing regrowth of vegetation along the roads—and at the vistas in particular— has always been a challenge for the park. By the 1930s, vegetation had regrown along the raw edges of the roadway. Between 1933 and 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) cleared around 450 acres in the park, including roadside vistas. In 1941, Assistant Superintendent Benjamin Hadley was instructed to develop a plan to maintain the overlooks and manage the vegetation. By this time, managing the vegetation below the scenic overlooks had become an ongoing challenge.

The great fire of 1947 changed this situation, transforming much of the eastern half of Mount Desert Island into a barren landscape. Historic photographs indicate it was not until the early 1950s that new vegetation began to thrive, but by the late 1950s—thanks in large part to Rockefeller’s sponsorship of parkwide reforestation efforts—vegetation in burned areas was well on its way to reclaiming the formerly barren slopes.

In 1958 and 1961, the park’s landscape architect, E.S. Whitaker, prepared two drawings with locations and descriptions of seventy vistas along various motor road segments on Mount Desert Island, beginning at the north end of Paradise Hill Road, continuing counterclockwise around the Park Loop Road, and ending at the top of Cadillac Summit Road. Most of the vistas offered outward views of the mountains, lakes, and shorelines; a few provided inward views showcasing other natural features in the park such as forest vegetation and unique geological features. According to Whitaker, “at each of these locations clearing to establish a vista had been done at a previous time or, due to the 1947 fire, a vista has become established that is desirable to retain.” The management goal of the vista plan was “to hold conditions at the present [1961] status.” The plan acknowledged that removal of growth would be periodically needed, but only after careful study by park staff “on the ground.”

These maps and documents still provide the baseline for managing vistas in the park. They were deemed so important that the 1961 vista map was included in Acadia’s 1992 General Management Plan, with 71 roadside vistas listed for continued preservation. Yet many of those vistas documented in the late 1950s and early 1960s have since become blocked by the growth of forest vegetation. This is due, in part, to the maturing of the forests following the great fire of 1947, but also because the park has had only limited resources to keep the vistas open. As budgets shrank, so too did the number of park staff with the expertise to do vista work.

Because of this, anyone touring Acadia’s roads can no longer experience the long views intended by the road designers and enjoyed by earlier generations of visitors. Instead, they pass through a forested tunnel with a growing scarcity of roadside vistas inviting them to pause and take in a more expansive view. These circumstances have magnified traffic congestion and led to concentrated visitor impacts at the diminishing number of unobstructed viewpoints.

Recognizing this problem, the park enlisted the help of NPS landscape architects to review the vista plans and develop recommendations for treatment that could be implemented as funding became available. The Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation (OCLP) supports the work of park managers throughout the NPS by documenting park cultural landscapes. Eliot Foulds, a senior OCLP landscape architect, began working with the park in 1993 to establish the historic significance of Acadia’s motor roads and the features that contribute to their historic integrity. In 2006, Eliot and associate Jeff Killion completed a historic landscape report on Acadia’s road system, which is the basis for listing it to the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2012, after a careful review of historic documentation, Foulds and Killion went out in the field to reconcile historic vista locations marked on the 50-year-old paper maps with current landscape conditions. They used GPS and other new geospatial technologies to map the vistas. They also spent a considerable amount of time looking at and from the present vistas to understand the original intended view. Some vistas have become obsolete, such as those created for drivers heading the wrong way on what is now a one-way road (like Ocean Drive). The work also required them to use their professional judgment to reconcile differences between the 1958 and 1961 maps. In some cases the two maps were widely disparate, likely due to crude mapping techniques.

Once the team had assessed and mapped each vista they could make recommendations for treatment. The park now has the baseline data needed to begin rehabilitation of the vistas. Thirty vistas were identified for priority treatment because they either offer unique views, are at the most popular visitor destinations (like Bubble Rock), or are at pullouts and parking lots. Improvements at these vistas will offer the best opportunities for more Acadia visitors to take in the scenery that makes Acadia so special.

In general the National Park Service does not actively manage ecosystems like forests, except in particular circumstances: to protect rare species, to manage invasive and non-native pest species, and to protect cultural resources. The Park Loop Road and the vistas along it are considered a nationally significant cultural resource, so cutting of trees and shrubs is aimed at protecting this resource and is guided by OCLP’s research and limited to the priority vistas.

Yet vista rehabilitation work is as much an art as it is a science. Each vista has been mapped with a polygon defining the area in which cutting should be considered. Within that area, each tree and shrub is assessed with an artist’s eye to decide whether it should be cut or trimmed to maintain the vista—just as cutting was carefully considered when the roads were originally built. And in keeping with NPS policy to protect all resources, prior to any cutting we conduct an environmental review to ensure that rare plants or other natural resources will not be harmed.

As we approach the centennial of Acadia’s founding, we have a unique opportunity to spruce up the historic motor road, refurbish the vistas, and restore some lost views of the magnificent scenery that Acadia was created to protect.

REBECCA COLE-WILL is the chief of resource management at Acadia National Park.

ELIOT FOULDS and JEFF KILLION, landscape architects at the NPS Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, also contributed to this article.


Above: Photographs from the 1920s and today show how trees have altered the viewing experience from the Otter Cliffs area of Ocean Drive. National Park Service photos.