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Charles Eliot

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Friends of Acadia
March 29, 2011

A couple of decades ago my wife and I discovered Acadia National Park. Over the years we spent some of our vacation time there. We've also visited national parks in the west. Acadia may not match some of the western parks for grand scenery, but it is certainly the most scenic place on the east coast. Acadia was close to home, but it took most of a day to get there and a day to return, leaving not much time out of a short vacation. We chose to make the drive of six or more hours to get there because of Acadia's natural beauty, visitor-friendly surrounding communities, and unique features.

Acadia's unique features include about 120 miles of hiking trails that typically lead to spectacular views within an hour, and a system of carriage roads, closed to motor vehicles, that cover 45 miles carefully planned to show the scenery without intruding on it. To add to the attraction, the carriage roads are festooned with beautiful stone bridges that carry the bicyclist or walker across babbling brooks and deep ravines while opening scenic ocean views. In addition, Acadia includes a remote peninsula encompassing an unspoiled section of Maine's rocky coast and most of a large island where visitors are limited and primitive camping under starlit skies is available. These features kept us coming back year after year. When it was time to retire we chose to live in Bar Harbor so that we could enjoy Acadia all year round.

What does a new retiree do with his time? How do people make friends in a new town? Friends of Acadia provided us with tools that make for a happy retirement. FOA helps to take care of a small national park that gets millions of visitors each year in a location beset with harsh winters and fierce storms bringing wind and rain in abundance off the Atlantic Ocean. This environment calls for a lot of work to keep heavily used hiking trails and carriage roads in decent repair. FOA helps by raising funds for an efficient public transportation system that eases visitor impact, by raising funds to furnish the Acadia National Park management with tools, equipment and paid staff to maintain and repair trails and carriage roads, and by encouraging and supporting volunteers who give up some of their time to help maintain Acadia.

As an FOA volunteer I learned about Acadia National Park's history. Unlike western national parks, Acadia was not created by setting aside an undeveloped wilderness already owned by the federal government. Acadia's history goes back a long ways. Its first European visitor, Samuel de Champlain, founded the first European settlement in eastern North America just a couple of hours east of here in 1604. After the Civil War wealthy Americans, including John D. Rockefeller Jr., brought their families to spend the summer here. These wealthy summer residents, called rusticators, built most of Acadia National Park's hiking trails and carriage roads either by hiring local labor or by doing the work themselves. Anxious to preserve Acadia's scenery from over development, they founded the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations, a non-profit organization that bought land and set it aside preserved from development. This private organization gave its land, with all of its privately built hiking trails and carriage roads, along with endowments for their upkeep in many cases, to the federal government for the establishment of the first national park in the east.

Unfortunately, two world wars and an economic depression reduced the federal government's ability to care for Acadia. In 1947 a wildfire burned half of Mount Desert Island, where the majority of the park's land is located. The 1947 fired burned many of the mansions used by rusticators during their summer stays and caused some of them to move on to other places. Hiking trails and carriage roads fell into disrepair and were subject to wash outsand land slides. It was difficult for visitors, whose numbers were reduced during wars and the depression, to enjoy Acadia. This and the 1947 fire devastated the local economy. Something had to be done to save Acadia.

Friends of Acadia was established in 1986 and began raising funds to restore and maintain Acadia. FOA established a permanent endowment for the carriage roads, worked against attempts to surround the park with unsuitable development, endowed the hiking trails, built or restored trails that connect the park to local communities thereby affording local residents the opportunity to enjoy the park without driving, partnered with L. L. Bean to establish and support a free public bus system to carry visitors and residents to and from the park and local lodging places and campgrounds, and sponsored and supported volunteers to work on Acadia's trails and carriage roads, which is where I came in.

Volunteering is really more about the volunteers than it is about the work they do, although any volunteer will be proud of his or her contribution to making the world a better place. In 2010 FOA volunteers contributed over 8,000 hours of their time to work on Acadia's trails and carriage roads. That is a lot of time, but it is unskilled labor that is the equivalent of less than ten seasonal employees. Volunteering has a tremendous impact on the volunteers themselves, the many visitors who see the volunteers at work, and people back home. Proud of their work, volunteers become enthusiastic stewards of Acadia National Park and parks in other places. That stewardship extends to political activity on behalf of parks. Visitors who see volunteers at work commonly offer profuse thanks, thereby enhancing the volunteer's good feelings, and become volunteers themselves either at Acadia or elsewhere. Some of FOA's volunteers spend the cooler months in the south, and, like one volunteer couple I know, volunteer as much at home, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in this instance, as they do at Acadia. Those 8,000 hours have a ripple effect worth many times the $100,000 or so it would cost to replace them with paid labor.

I volunteered for Friends of Acadia for about seven years and my wife volunteers for FOA as well. We have met many of our friends in this area through volunteering. Volunteers whom we have met play important roles in this community. They volunteer at their local library or provide rides to people who need transportation to medical services. In this way the circle of people one knows grows ever larger through networks of other volunteer activities. By volunteering I've learned a lot about Acadia National Park. Despite its small area and millions of visitors, Acadia contains hidden wonders unseen by most visitors that I've been privileged to see through volunteering.

The one thing that FOA's volunteer program has failed to do for the most part is to overcome the proclivity of today's young people to prefer staying inside with their electronic toys to getting out into nature by hiking and biking and kayaking. If we don't get young people involved in the outdoors we risk losing our parklands. In times of austerity how willing would they be to spend tax dollars on maintaining hiking trails or bike paths if they haven't climbed a mountain? If today's young people are fortunate enough to enjoy financial prosperity, how willing would they be to part with some of their wealth to support the environment if they haven't camped under the stars? FOA and many organizations are trying, but so far they have been unable to stem the ebbing tide of outdoor involvement. That has got to be the mission for the future.

The Great!

I've personally experienced the results of this organization in...

Meeting new friends, discovering more about Acadia National Park, and enjoying a sense of pride in the work that I have accomplished with my own hands.

Ways to make it better...

If I had to make changes to this organization, I would...

Make sure staff at all levels is focused on getting young people to become enthusiastic supporters of the outdoors. Recruit well to do young people to the Board. Reflect upon FOA's failure in allowing a large tract of land to be given to a local college rather than be placed under a conservation easement.

More feedback

Would you volunteer for this group again?

Definitely

For the time you spent, how much of an impact did you feel your work or activity had?

A lot

Did the organization use your time wisely?

Quite well

Would you recommend this group to a friend?

Definitely

What one change could this group make that would improve your volunteer experience?

More convenient location and starting time.

Did your volunteer experience have an effect on you? (teaching you a new skill, or introducing new friends, etc.)

New skills new friends

How did this volunteer experience make you feel?

Very proud.

When was your last experience with this nonprofit?

2011

MY ROLE:
Volunteer & For seven years I worked on trails and carriage roads, made directional signs for bicyclists, and helped teams of volunteers clean up local roads leading to Acadia National Park.