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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Coasts of a Maine Vacation

Air Date: Week of

Summer is over, and down Maine the foliage is starting to turn. Maine has been catering to "leaf-peepers," summer campers and summer colonists for generations now. Until recently, Maine's license plates even proclaimed the state as "Vacationland." There's no doubt all those visitors bring plenty of cash. But a new report raises questions about the environmental costs of hosting so many guests. Maine Public Radio's Andrea de Leon reports.


CURWOOD: Down Maine, the foliage is starting to turn. The state has been catering to leaf peepers for generations. They come on the heels of summer campers and summer colonists. Until recently, Maine's license plates even proclaimed the state "Vacationland." There's no doubt all those visitors bring plenty of cash. But a new report raises questions about the environmental costs of hosting so many guests. Maine Public Radio's Andrea de Leon reports.

(Engines running)

MAN: Number 39, can I get in?

WOMAN: Sorry.

DE LEON: Some of Maine's best-known outdoor destinations are getting crowded. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to the state each year to hike in Baxter State Park, ski, snowmobile, raft, or otherwise take advantage of the state's outdoors, generating $5.4 billion in economic activity along the way.

VAIL: There's not any question that it is Maine's nature that is the prime attraction.

DE LEON: But economist David Vail says all those visitors may be loving some of Maine's most fragile attractions to death. Dr. Vail chairs the Environmental Studies Department at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. His research for the Maine Center for Economic Policy turned up a catalogue of environmental problems he says ought to make Maine people think twice about trying to lure more visitors to places like Acadia National Park, Mt. Katahdin, and other popular destinations. Take the cumulative impact of dozens of camp sites on a fragile island ecosystem.

VAIL: People hack down the limited tree cover for their campfires. We see it in the litter that accumulates when 1,000 or so canoes a day are going down the Saco River at the peak summer season in this sort of weekend-long beer party on the Saco River. We see it with trail deterioration in places like Tumble-Down Mountain. Travelers who are just here for a weekend want to get out backpacking. But when there are enough of them over a season, those trails get worn down and somebody's got to repair them or the erosion problem is fairly serious.

DE LEON: But the report looks at the complex impact of one of the fastest-growing tourist draws that's brought economic vitality to a part of Maine where jobs and opportunities have always been in short supply.

(Torrents of water)

DE LEON: On Labor Day weekend, the Kennebec River flowed strong and clear and apparently deserted through the near-wilderness of rural western Maine. But an armada of aging school buses gathered in a rocky clearing to await the human onslaught that was to come. The Kennebec's waters are controlled by a series of hydro-dams, and when the power company releases a large supply of water each morning, it pumps up the volume on a series of rapids that draw thrill-seekers from all over the Northeast. On Labor Day Weekend, one of the biggest of the year for the whitewater companies, well over 1,000 rafters and kayakers ran the stretch in just over 4 hours.

(Milling sounds, equipment being moved)

WOMAN: That was fun.

WOMAN2: Yeah, if you're ready, come on down.

MAN: Slow down, slow down, we've got a boat ahead of us.

DE LEON: Rafts nearly collided as they reached the take-out point, and no sooner did the paddlers hop out of the rafts than their guides gave the signal to hoist the rafts and carry them to the awaiting assembly of trucks and trailers, to make room for the next wave of people coming down from near the dam.

(Air hissing)

DE LEON: Within minutes, the rafts were deflated and the rafters loaded onto the buses, which carried many of them back to one of the new whitewater centers spawned to cater to the growing demand. These day-trippers carry almost nothing that could be left behind as trash, and as one rafting company official points out, they saw the wilderness without setting so much as a toe on it. Bill Hanson is a biologist with Central Maine Power, the utility that regulates the hydro-dam.

HANSON: For the number of people that utilize this resource, it's probably one of the lowest-impact uses of anything I can think of up here. There have been tens of thousands of people go down just this river here on the Kennebec every year, and you have a real captive audience. The people are in a raft floating down the river. They're not littering or damaging the landscape.

DE LEON: The state recently expanded the number of rafters traveling with whitewater companies from 800 to 1,000 on peak days, and economist Dr. Vail praises the state and the industry for having the foresight to determine the river's carrying capacity and prevent it from being overrun. And some whitewater enthusiasts say the limits are too high, and that the amount of traffic on the state's best whitewater runs detracts from the experience. And there are no limits on the increasing number of private rafters and kayakers. It's a sentiment the industry disputes, but one heard frequently from Maine backwoods enthusiasts, who increasingly find their middle-of-nowhere destinations too crowded to feel like real wilderness. Rafter Mary Thompson recently spent a disappointing day hiking the Appalachian Trail.

(Sounds of people milling around)

THOMPSON: We just saw tons of people coming down from Pleasant Pond, and it was just -- it really detracted from that.

DE LEON: Economist David Vail mentions backpacker traffic jams. It's not uncommon to reach the remote northern end of the Appalachian Trail, the challenging hike to the peak of Maine's Mt. Katahdin, and come upon a couple hundred people at the summit. If a place develops a reputation for overcrowding, Dr. Vail says some people will leave it off their itinerary--not a happy scenario for people who rely on the money tourists spend. He says states like Maine should build their tourism promotions around less well known attractions, and he likes the user fees now in place at national parks and some national forests.

VAIL: It seems to me that when people are taking advantage of our natural attractions, they shouldn't have free access to those, because there are maintenance and restoration costs associated with that.

DE LEON: But user fees are often unpopular with taxpayers, who may feel they're being charged twice to use a public resource. And David Vail admits that in a relatively poor, rural state like Maine, such fees could leave some residents unable to afford a wilderness experience. When Mary Thompson made her way down the Kennebec on Labor Day weekend, she was accompanied by her sister Kate, an employee of the Appalachian Mountain Club in neighboring New Hampshire. The AMC both educates people about protecting the fragile mountain environment and runs a system of huts that enables hundreds of people to visit and potentially degrade the area. Kate Thompson sees the contradiction of promoting outdoor recreation and environmental protection to the public.

K. THOMPSON: You have to get them out there and realize that it's out there, and it's something that they would want to protect. And I guess it's better to have a lot of people walking around in the woods than it is to clear-cut the area or, you know, develop it. At least it's there, I guess. People can use it.

DE LEON: And economist David Vail says research demonstrates that people who take part in outdoor recreation, whether it's a quiet paddle downriver, a whitewater trip, a hike up Mt. Katahdin, or a day at the beach, are very likely to support environmental protection initiatives when they vote, when they consider their tax bills, and when they stop to consider their own personal impact on the environment. For Living on Earth, I'm Andrea de Leon in Portland, Maine.



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