By Rich MacDonald, Special to the BDN
More than 3 million people are expected to visit Acadia National Park during the National Park Service’s centennial year. They will be greeted by picture-perfect views and miles of magnificent coastline. This treasure is the inheritance of all Americans. Alas, the park and its visitors face significant threats from air pollution and a changing climate.
Most Americans come to Maine seeking a quiet and relaxing vacation, within driving distance — somewhere beautiful, safe and clean. This last quality is important so that they can breathe fresh air, smell the balsams and feel the salt air invigorate their senses. “Vacationland” seems like the perfect place to visit. And what better place to go than a national park like Acadia?
As a guide running a business leading birding, nature, hiking and kayaking tours, we are not just taking people out for an experience; our tours are designed to be educational. On our birding tours, we know we are going to talk about the life history of the birds we see or the strategies they employ during migration or the ecological services they provide.
Last year, I had a family of four who wanted to hike a mountain and learn about alpine ecology. It was one of those hot, humid summer days when the air masses stagnate, letting the atmospheric cocktail simmer in the sunlight. The air was palpably heavy.
As we began climbing the Spring Trail up Penobscot Mountain, our pace was painfully slow — good thing I always carry a lot of extra water and food. Sweat poured off our brows, our shirts were soaked. A dozen steps up the short, steep section, I saw the teenage boy struggling. He had discreetly taken several puffs of an inhaler. I can relate as I, too, have asthma and my lungs were unhappy. I called a break.
Looking out the short distance toward Pemetic Mountain, the air was tinged yellow, the sickly yellow of air heavy with ozone. The family wanted to go on, but it was clearly unsafe for the boy. I called an early end to the hike, and they reluctantly agreed. I offered alternatives but this was their day to hike. In the end, I had to give them a refund. I lost a day’s earnings.
This is just one story, but the changing climate affects my business in many ways, and not for the better. This was not the first time I have had to cancel a hike because of air pollution alerts. And this past winter, I was unable to offer cross-country ski tours on Acadia’s carriage roads because we just did not have reliable snow.
The warming climate is harming wildlife, which is significant for me and my business. The Gulf of Maine is warming, changing the makeup of forage fish. Sand-lances, the preferred food of puffins, are being replaced by butterfish, which are too big for chicks to swallow. The result: fewer puffins. And fewer puffins mean fewer tourists seeking puffin tours.
A warming climate also means some insects emerge earlier in the spring. Since many migratory birds are sensitive to daylight cues rather than temperature, when they return, their insect prey are further along in their life cycle, putting these two groups out of sync.
As the climate continues to warm at a rate faster than ever previously seen, I worry it will harm Maine’s, and my, nature-based tourism opportunities.
Protecting our environment is the first step toward protecting the health of people and wildlife. Ensuring clean air in Acadia is essential to keeping visitors on hiking trails and out of the emergency room.
The good news is that we don’t have to look far for achievable, common-sense solutions.
One year ago, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized its Clean Power Plan. The plan sets the first-ever federal limits on carbon pollution from power plants, which contribute nearly 40 percent of the U.S carbon dioxide emissions, a major contributor to climate change. The plan also encourages development of clean, renewable energy.
The Clean Power Plan is a huge step forward in our country’s efforts to address the greatest environmental challenge we face today.
Protecting the health and economy of Acadia National Park is important to our heritage. By taking strong action to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, we can help make sure this national treasure will stay pristine and healthy for another 100 years and beyond.
Rich MacDonald is a registered Maine Guide and co-owner of The Natural History Center in Bar Harbor.