Land Rights Letter February, 1994
Updated June 2006
Preservationists Openly Promote Land Takings at Acadia,
Frighten Local Communities
By Erich Veyhl
The Politics of Park Expansion: Rolling the Landowners at Round Pond
The latest  controversy over preservationist and government deception and political abuse of civil rights is now building to a head at Acadia National Park in Maine, a park which preservationists have cited as a model for its supposed fairness to landowners.
In the spring of 1986 David Irvin, a resident of Mt. Desert Island, Maine, bought his property on the shore of Round Pond with the intention of converting a small seasonal dwelling into the family home. Knowing that Acadia National Park was his neighbor and that new boundary legislation was in the works, he spent the previous year researching and asking a lot of questions before buying.
Acadia National Park was at the time one of the few National Parks where the government was restricted by law from condemning private property. The park could acquire property by donation or exchange within a large area in two counties, but it could not buy, let alone condemn, private property.
New boundary legislation and acquisition authority had been discussed for decades because of conflicts over park expansion. The Park Service and its boosters wanted what they called “traditional” acquisition authority to take private property, while the local communities wanted fixed boundaries around the park to contain its history of encroachment on the local land and tax base – National Parks impose heavy demands on local infrastructure but pay virtually no taxes.
Despite public assurances that there would be no condemnation of private property, to appease the desires of the National Park Service and its boosters, eminent domain authority, with limitations, was written into new legislation drafted by Maine Senators George Mitchell (D-ME) and Bill Cohen (R-ME) (S.720, March 20, 1985). The bill fixed the acquisition boundaries near the existing park holdings, but authorized limited condemnation in new acquisition authority. In particular it exempted “construction of a single-family residence” from National Park Service condemnation.
In a private meeting the National Park Service told David Irvin that it would like to acquire the property he was considering, but that they would not interfere with construction of his new home. (Much later the Park Service would produce its own notes on the meeting with Irvin, claiming that he agreed with their intent, while omitting their commitment not to interfere with his stated goal of building a home.)
The Irvins were satisfied they would be safe. They bought the property and within a few months the 1986 boundary legislation was passed.
Unknown to the public, including most landowners affected, the original 1985 legislation was changed at the last minute in order to further appease the desires of the National Park Service and its lobbyists. The change allowed the Park Service to prohibit new homes and most enlargements and many other changes to existing homes, using eminent domain as a tool of enforcement. Private landowners who had been assured the plans were not a threat, moreover, were helplessly included in the acquisition boundary, often without their knowledge.
A Cynical Pattern
Faced by increasing public resistance to expansion of government acquisition and control of private property, park and wilderness pressure groups across the country are pretending that coercion is not part of their agenda to “save” more of someone else's land. We are dishonestly told that the government only buys from “willing sellers”. We are told that abuses of landowners' civil rights by Federal and State agencies have not been documented and are only “perceptions”. We are told that preservationists have a “new” approach that respects landowners' rights and the economy.
But the preservationist modus operandi remains the same classic bait-and-switch: Use euphemisms and vague unenforceable promises and suggestions that no one will be hurt. Avoid detailed maps showing who will be affected and how. Deflect the discussion of preservationism away from civil rights implications. Hope that no one exposes the legislative fine print and ambiguity in granting new bureaucratic powers over communities and private landowners. Demand “compromise” which quietly sacrifices helpless individual landowners in the name of the “public”. Tell the public virtually anything in the marketing campaign promotions in the name of “The Environment” – except the negative consequences for those ensnared. Smear those who speak out to defend their rights as “Moonies” or “fronts for industry” or having some other alleged ulterior motive for “destroying the environment”.
When it's all over and the landowners are again in trouble as a result of the new preservation powers, do nothing to help. Rather, use every political and legal trick in the book to grab maximum control after the new laws are in place and the latest hapless victims have no means to fight back. Hope the word doesn't spread to other targeted regions, and if it does, smear the messengers as “Moonies” or “fronts for industry”, etc., etc. – and then play the same cynical political game all over again.
In this article on one of many controversies at Acadia National Park in Maine, we see the second phase of the cycle in which, after the initial period of poetic promotion and phony assurances is over, the preservationists and the National Park Service go for the throat.
The Irvins, like most others, learned of the switch in eminent domain authority after the law was passed. And more, the National Park Service included the private property along the side of Round Pond by expansively redefining a roughly drawn boundary line referred to in the legislation. The National Park Service routinely interprets its authority to mean that it should be exercised to the fullest extent, and park officials told the Irvins they could not build their new home. The Irvins' choices were to pay taxes on land they would maintain for the government, be condemned for trying to build their home, or become a “willing seller” to the National Park Service.
Senators Mitchell and Cohen agreed that the boundary was ambiguous and told the Park Service to fix the problem. The Park Service fixed it by commissioning a survey to locate the disputed ambiguous boundary in their own favor, and the owners at Round Pond have been fighting ever since. Three other Round Pond parcels are also affected by the revised acquisition boundary.
Last summer  the Acadia Advisory Commission sided with the Round Pond families – over the objections of both the Park Service and preservationist organizations – when it voted to recommend correcting the ambiguous boundary by setting it on the shore of the pond, off the privately owned land. Since the Park Service refuses to reverse its actions, it is up to Congress to protect the landowners by correcting the 1986 boundary legislation.
Aside from advocates of park expansion who want more private land taken for the park, much of the local opposition to the boundary correction has come from people sympathetic with the Irvins and the other landowners but who are afraid of the National Park Service and its lobbyists, who are threatening to amend any new legislative correction and take over even more private property. An editorial entitled “All bets are off” in the Bar Harbor Times last July  represented the fears:“While we can sympathize with Round Pond landowners who would like to see the Acadia National Park boundary issue reopened, extreme caution must be used before any move is made in that direction. The prospect is all too real that new legislation, even to clarify language, etc., could foster a new gold rush by conservation organizations and others to include even more land in the park... In the years following the master plan, groups such as the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club urged more land for the park, including thousands of acres... They would certainly be smacking their lips at the prospect of new lobbying opportunities in Washington.”
The communities' fears are not unfounded. The local park booster group, “Friends of Acadia” – founded in 1986 and whose first chairman of the board was John Kauffmann, a National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA) Trustee and retired National Park Service chief planner – acknowledged its lack of concern for property rights in a letter claiming to take no position while promoting government acquisition in the name of “protection”:“Although we are taking no position and have no competence to judge the issue of landowners rights in this situation, we must say that as an organization our major concern is the long term protection of the park lands.”
The Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), an environmentalist political pressure group that has promoted government acquisition and sweeping regulatory land use prohibitions throughout Maine, also opposed the landowners, claiming in a letter to the Advisory Commission that the current boundary “represents a compromise among all [sic] interested parties”. Writing landowners out of “the public”, the letter stated “we do not believe it is in the interest of the public or the interest of the park to reopen the debate...” The letter warned that“... if the boundary legislation is reopened, we believe that it is important that potential additional areas for inclusion also be considered. Many areas which we had hoped would be included in 1986 were not included and are still deserving of protection [sic].”
The Washington DC based National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA), in collaboration with NRCM, has also been promoting an expansion of Acadia along with expansion and creation of several new National Parks and Refuges throughout, but mostly in rural, Maine as part of its 1988 National Park System Plan prepared in collaboration with the National Park Service. Friends of Acadia's Kauffmann was also credited by NPCA for his work on the 1988 NPCA Plan: The Executive Summary credits Kauffmann and another Trustee for “conduct[ing] their own careful review and very helpful policy review for the NPCA Board, prior to the unanimous vote of approval from the full Board of Trustees.”
NPCA wrote to the Advisory Commission opposing the rights of the landowners and threatening to use any proposed change to the legislation to further expand park boundaries. NPCA Northeast Regional Director, Bruce Craig, claimed the “effort by Mr. David Irvin and several others smacks of special interest legislation”, and threatened,“Should a legislative remedy be endorsed by your Commission and should the Congressional delegation advance special legislation on Irvin's behalf, such action will be opposed by this Association. You no doubt realize that opening the park boundary issue at this time could indeed open up a Pandora's box relating to other controversial park boundary issues.”
Craig claimed that inclusion of the Irvins and other Round Pond property in the condemnation boundary was “no ‘mistake’” because the Park Service and the preservationists wanted the land: He argued that at a Congressional hearing, “this position was articulated not only by the NPS but also by several environmental organizations”, and“environmental organizations including NPCA, the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, the Maine Natural Resources Council and several other groups proposed up to 20 additions to the park.”
Craig quoted Sen. Mitchell urging the 1986 compromise legislation:“I ask everyone to consider nobody gets what they want out of this bill completely. I ask whether or not you are prepared to sacrifice getting a bill at all.”
Craig argues that because the lobbyists for acquisition had been forced to compromise by not getting all they wanted of other people's property it would be improper to save individual landowners – dismissed by Craig as mere “special interests” not part of “the public” – who had been quietly sacrificed not only by the 1986 “compromise” imposed at their expense but also by the National Park Service's subsequent reinterpretation expanding the acquisition boundary.
He threatened the Commission, reminding it of the 1988 NPCA expansion plan and listing the targeted areas that preservationist lobbyists will go after if the boundary is reconsidered, then concluded with another explicit rejection of concerns for the landowners: “In spite of the apparent hardship posed on the owners of the lands in question, we urge you to reject the request of the Round Pond Landowners Association.”
Frightened by the threats, the Bar Harbor Times again editorialized, this time in the name of something called “Wider responsibility”:“Members of the Acadia National Park Advisory Commission who voted to support Round Pond Property owners ... let empathy for an individual case cloud their sense of responsibility to the areas as a whole”
“It is not in the interests of the vast majority of landowners and towns represented by the commission to have powerful special interest groups in the nation's capital salivating over the prospect of expanding the park's boundaries.”
It has already begun to happen. The National Parks and Conservation Association ... says it will do just that if any bill changing the boundaries is introduced.”
The editor then turned on the landowners, claiming“there was not then, nor is there now, any grand conspiracy to hoodwink landowners. If anything, many property owners will admit that they themselves bear some of the blame for not paying greater attention ... No plan involving the protection of land for the public good can be implemented without pain and sacrifice.”
He also accused landowners “painted as hapless victims” of “reap[ing] large financial windfalls” because they are paid for the property they give up.
David Irvin had earlier written a letter to the editor describing his frustrating experiences with the National Park Service. He reported that, in naively attempting to resolve the boundary dispute with the agency, he had been told: “If you don't like it, sue us”, and “we will out live you.” Irvin commented:“[T]he bureaucracy that opposes a solution to the landowner's problem uses the threat of the system being out of control as a way to prevent the landowners from developing a solution that is not to the bureaucracy's liking.”
“Why should, or does, a special-interest group or bureaucracy have a higher standing with our legislators than the citizens they represent? For them to promote the fear that more of our communities’ lands or rights will be lost by trying to resolve an injustice against only a few citizens is intimidation and tyranny... This should be intolerable.”
“Citizens, whether in positions of responsibility or not, who are swayed by these types of fears do a great disservice to the cause of democracy...”
Before the Advisory Commission vote in favor of the landowners and confirming the facts of the situation, Sen. Cohen's office had said “if the Commission doesn't think it's a good idea, it won't go any further. If the Commission likes the idea, it doesn't mean that it will necessarily go further, but the issue will have more force.”
David Irvin has since met with Sen. Mitchell personally and with aides to the Maine Congressional delegation, which is reluctant to take a stand against the preservationist pressure groups or the National Park Service. He is now waiting for them to decide what, if anything, they will do. He earlier told the Bangor Daily News:“The individual doesn't have power unless in a big group that has lots of money. It seems immoral to me for the government to take the stand that it may only be a detail, but you lose, too bad. Explain to me why the Park Service has a higher standing than I do. I've got to find a reason, a motivation for [the Congressional delegation] to work with me. Good will, honesty, wanting to right a wrong apparently isn't enough of a motivation.”
He's not alone.
Postscript, June 2006
Twelve years later the Maine Congressional delegation has done nothing to help the Round Pond property owners (or any others ensnared in the park boundaries), and the National Park Service continues to refuse to give up its control over their land. The property owners at Round Pond still have title to their land but don't know where to turn for help. One family owns a home that was built before the 1986 legislation passed but after its retroactively established cut–off date for condemnation. Another family that still wants to use its land tentatively gave up and tried to get the National Park Service to buy them out, but the agency, knowing it is already in complete control at no cost, offered less than half the value.
But the well-heeled, politically influential pressure groups know how to grease the skids to get what they want from Congress: The National Park Service and Friends of Acadia are quietly moving legislation sponsored by the Maine delegation (H.R. 2692/S. 1154) through Congress to authorize over triple the original acquisition funding authorized in 1986 and to authorize and fund a new National Park Service Visitor Center and busing facility arranged for and controlled by Friends of Acadia far outside the park boundary limits set in 1986. Friends of Acadia, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, NPCA and other non-government organizations (NGOs) collaborating with the National Park Service, which have been low-balling acquisition prices to landowners trapped in the boundaries, want government money to buy them out at a profit, and Friends of Acadia is setting itself up as a control center over regional tourism using Federal funding.
Under the new legislation the local Advisory Commission would also be extended for another 20 years even though for all practical purposes it appears to be have been supplanted in political influence by the Friends of Acadia, but a provision in the 1986 legislation providing for National Park Service payments to the local towns in lieu of lost property taxes would not be extended.In the Fall 2004 Friends of Acadia Journal, the organization's President, W. Kent Olson (formerly head of the National Park Service lobby American Rivers), wrote favorably of the agency's agenda to drive out private owners of “inholdings” caught in the acquisition boundary and which Olson and the National Park Service disparage as “holes”:“Superintendent Sheridan Steele has an important vision. He wants to ‘fill in the holes’ by purchasing or putting under easement the 157 private parcels inside Acadia's boundary. Congress authorized the acquisition... Maine's pro-Acadia Congressional delegation, Friends of Acadia, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, and others are working to reverse the situation. This is crucial if, as Steele hopes, the park's interior is to be made whole by 2016, the 100th anniversary of Acadia's founding and the establishment of the National Park Service.”Olson characterized property owners forced to sell because of government prohibitions on their use of their own land as “willing sellers who step forward every year”. He also claimed that the cost of government–funded acquisition is “not from taxes”, and complained that “Congress sent the restricted [sic] funds elsewhere, most likely to offset the federal deficit”.
Copyright © 1994, revised 2006 Erich Veyhl, Land Rights Letter, All rights reserved.
Page last updated: 6/05/06