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Deirdre Fleming

I report on Maine's outdoor people and places for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, and spend as much time in these wild lands as I can.

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Posted: May 24, 2016

Acadia’s neighbors collaborate for beloved park’s centennial

Written by: Deirdre Fleming

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Maine’s island cultures are renowned for their warm, communal spirit. That will come through during the year-long Centennial Celebration at Acadia National Park, Maine’s famous federal park along the rugged Down East coast.

The anniversary celebration is directed largely by the communities here. Appropriately so, since Acadia was founded by members of the Mount Desert Island summer colony and by locals who owned and loved the land.

That happened in 1916, the same year that the National Park Service itself was created. And while other national parks mark the system’s 100th anniversary, Acadia National Park will celebrate both milestones.

“What we’re trying to do is to honor and celebrate why Acadia was created in the first place. And we are looking beyond our boundaries and working with the community since residents of the community helped to create the national park,” said John Kelly, park spokesman. “Without that donation of private land, it never would have been. Unlike the western parks that were designated from federal land already owned by the government, this park was pieced together with private land that was given to the government to create a national park.”

As early as the late 1800s, European settlers came to summer on Mount Desert Island to experience its unique beauty.

Painters of the Hudson River School, including Frederic Church, captured the striking beauty of the steep forests across jagged rocks, the many small islands and the quintessential rocky Maine coast. By the late 1800s, tourism had arrived on Mount Desert Island. Ever since, it has been an outdoor destination for people from around the world.

But it was George Dorr who spearheaded a conservation effort, starting in 1901, that resulted in 6,000 acres being protected over about 11 years, according to the park service. On July 8, 1916, Dorr offered the land to the federal government and President Woodrow Wilson announced the creation of Sieur de Monts National Monument, making it the first national park in the east of the Mississippi.

Later, in 1919, the land was designated a national park and named Lafayette National Park. It was renamed Acadia National Park in 1929, when the tip of the Schoodic Peninsula was added to the park by an act of Congress. The family that donated the peninsula objected to the French name Lafayette, and so the legislation also changed the park’s name to Acadia, according to the Friends of Acadia.

Dorr continued to champion the extension of the park as its first superintendent, helped by others in the community, most notably John D. Rockefeller Jr., who gave some 10,000 acres. Rockefeller also financed the building of the historic carriage roads, the Park Loop Road and the gatehouses, an act of philanthropy carried on by his family as recently as last year.

Last summer, billionaire David Rockefeller celebrated his 100th birthday by donating more than 1,000 acres of fields, forests and carriage roads on private land next to the park to the Land and Garden Preserve of Mount Desert Island, opening up more public land around Acadia.

All told, Acadia National Park consists of 36,180 acres owned by the National Park Service.

The Park Loop Road that winds along Mount Desert Island’s pink granite is considered one of the most dramatic coastal drives in the national park system. And many believe the views across Frenchman’s Bay from the Schoodic Peninsula are even more remarkable.

It’s no wonder it’s one of the most visited national parks.

Out of the 59 national parks across the country, Acadia has been one of the top 10 most-visited parks every year for the past decade, averaging 2.5 million visits per year, Kelly said.

To the locals who live around Maine’s national park, it’s a magical home.

“There is a relationship between the park and the surrounding communities that is physically intimate and emotionally intimate,” said Jack Russell, a board member of Friends of Acadia National Park and a resident of Mount Desert Island.

“If you grew up here, as I did, you cannot help but feel the presence of the park, and it’s linked to your community. You roll out of bed, look out the window and those mountains are what you see.”

Acadia’s Centennial Celebration has been in the works for three years with the help of the Acadia Centennial Task Force, made up of members of the park staff and residents of surrounding communities, as well as the Friends of Acadia National Park.

As many as 376 Acadia Centennial partners have created a lineup of more than 100 events, including presentations, art exhibits, guided trips and speeches.

“They’re programs that express their bond and their relationship with Acadia National Park in a way they believe will engage and delight other people,” said Russell, a co-chair of the task force.

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