ARCING across Maine's Mount Desert Island, Acadia National Park is a scenic mix of mountains, lakes, offshore islands, and rock-bound Maine coast. The park includes Somes Sound, the only fjord in the continental United States, and the 1,530-foot summit of Cadillac Mountain, highest point on North America's Atlantic Coast. ``There's nothing better than right here,'' syas Acadia superintendent Jack Hauptman. ``You've got the mountains meeting the sea; you've got it all.''
Unique among national parks, Acadia has been created entirely from gifts of land. It shares borders with all four towns - Bar Harbor, Mt. Desert, Southwest Harbor, and Tremont - a patchwork arrangement that has created management problems and sparked controversy.
``People often donated land that had nothing to do with the other parts of the park,'' Isabel Mancinelli, a Park Service planner, explains. ``So the towns never knew what their tax base was going to be. And the park felt frustrated because, unable to purchase anything, it had no way to acquire certain key parcels.''
Ms. Mancinelli moved to Bar Harbor last year, on special assignment, from the regional office in Boston to help develop a general management plan (GMP) for Acadia. ``Most parks do this before or shortly after they're established,'' she says, ``but Acadia began long before GMPs existed. Later, every time people went to do a GMP, their focus fell instead on trying to set park boundaries.''
After more than 20 years of negotiation, federal legislation in September 1986 finally established definite boundaries for Acadia, which also includes portions of Isle au Haut and mainland Schoodic Peninsula (see map). ``Now we can ask, `What are we going to do with what we have?''' the planner says.
Carrying out a GMP has become more complex in recent years because of Acadia's great appeal. Although it is one of the smallest national parks (35,000 acres), Acadia ranks second in popularity (after Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the borders of Tennessee and North Carolina in the Appalachian Mountains).
``We're seeing expansion of [attendance] each month, especially in the fall,'' Mancinelli says. ``This September, we had a 7 percent increase in visitation over the same month last year.''
Such a crush of people - an estimated 4.7 million in 1988 - is about four times Maine's population, and 1,100 times the year-round population of Bar Harbor, Mt. Desert Island's largest town.
A recent Harvard University study expresses concern about ``the forces threatening [Acadia's] unique character if not its very survival.'' Projecting ahead, the study warns that as many as 6.2 million people may descend on Mt. Desert Island annually by the year 2000.
James Batchelder, executive director of the nonprofit group Friends of Acadia, notes, ``Most of New England is within a day's drive. The issue of numbers, of an island carrying capacity, needs to be looked at. What kind of an experience are we trying to give visitors?''
``Growth management is at the top of everybody's agenda,'' Mr. Hauptman says. ``And I spend a lot of time looking over the boundary fence, because growth management in the towns is critical to how we're going to manage the park.''
Hauptman also came to Maine last year, from his post as head of Fire Island National Seashore. At Acadia he finds many of the same problems he faced in New York: crowds of visitors along the shoreline, private-property land-use issues, and numerous local communities in and around park boundaries.
``I tell people I'm not going to make the decision on limits,'' the superintendent says. ``I'm going to protect the resource. I'll also provide the highest-quality visitor services I can, and if that requires putting limits on how the park is used, I'll do that.
``We have to work closely with the towns, because we need to know whether current trends of growth and development will continue unchecked,'' Mancinelli says. ``We're calling it a `cooperative stewardship' of the island; and we all need to work together.''
Hoping to provide citizen input into the planning process, local residents have created two new activist groups. ``Since Acadia is the only national park created almost entirely by private contributions, it's appropriate that private citizens again come to its support,'' says Mr. Batchelder about the 350-member organization he formed in the fall of 1986.
``It's a difficult road sometimes, because it can be far too easy for a group like Friends of Acadia to become very critical,'' Batchelder says. ``We try to maintain a relationship of advocacy, not adversity.'' The GMP, he adds, ``provides an ideal opportunity for citizens to take some really pro-active steps, and become involved with the park's future.''
Ron Beard, in his capacity as an extension agent for Maine's Hancock County, now coordinates another citizen effort. In establishing MDI Tomorrow last January, Mr. Beard says, ``We tried to balance ages, male and female, newcomer vs. native.'' This 21-member working group serves as ``a process, really, not a formal organization,'' according to Beard, and tries ``to recognize problems common to the four towns and Acadia, then focus what energy we can on them - money, resources, volunteer time.''
The members come from a wide local cross section, including town officials, the business community, environmentalists, and concerned citizens. ``They take information back to their representative groups,'' Beard explains, ``but they don't serve in an official capacity. They're here because of a personal interest; they see some validity to the process.''
In late September, MDI Tomorrow released a draft report that discusses many areas of local concern similar to problems faced by Acadia's planners: traffic, protection of open space, solid waste disposal, quality and supply of drinking water, traditional access to the ocean, land costs, the tax structure, and tourism and the year-round economy.
Beard, who is also chairman of the Bar Harbor planning board, says, ``These are statewide issues as well as local issues, but we want to have local people determine their own needs.''
While others cite the long history of disagreements between the national park and the towns, Beard remains optimistic. ``Because we are on an island,'' he says, ``I think there's a history of thinking together on things, despite what people might say. And Acadia serves as the glue that ties the towns here together.''