Downeast Coastal Press June 20, 2006

At Acadia, Lust for More Land Is Encroaching on Rights of Property Owners

By Erich Veyhl

Quietly making its way through Congress is more federal legislation sponsored by Maine's Sen. Snowe (R), Sen. Collins (R), Rep. Michaud (D) and Rep. Allen (D) on behalf of the politically well-connected environmentalist pressure groups.

Called the “Acadia National Park Improvement Act” (HR 2692/S 1154), its politics reveal much about both the ends and the means of the politically privileged Maine environmental lobby and the implications for political control Down East. The bill and its process beg for an answer to what they mean by “improvement,” why it is being pursued quietly out of public scrutiny – and what ever happened to the legislative recommendation by the local Acadia Advisory Commission 12 years ago to correct an injustice toward property owners who had been politically manipulated out of their own property.

In order to discourage controversy lest anyone look too closely, the new bill is officially said only “to extend the Acadia National Park Advisory Commission, to provide improved visitor services at the park, and for other purposes.” The vague term “other purposes” turns out to mean tripling authorized park acquisition funding, much of it to pay off land trusts. “Improved visitor services” means unlimited government funds for a private park lobbying group, Friends of Acadia (net assets $16.5 million at the end of 2004), to run a large new park visitor center and regional busing facility in collaboration with the Park Service outside the legal park boundaries. Aside from ignoring after 12 years the advisory commission's recommendation to save some property owners from an unjust loss, the bill does not include renewing a provision for government payments in lieu of lost property taxes on land taken over by the park.

But let us start with the background.

The Politics of Park Expansion: Rolling the Landowners at Round Pond

A major controversy over preservationist and government deception and abuse of civil rights came to a head in 1994 at Acadia. The controversy is one of many, even though preservationists seeking more government control have cited Acadia as a model for supposed fairness to landowners.

In the spring of 1986, David Irvin, a resident of Mount Desert Island, 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 progress, 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 across two counties, but it could not buy, let alone condemn, private property.

Yet new boundary legislation and acquisition authority had been discussed for decades because of conflicts over park expansion. The Park Service and its environmentalist boosters wanted what they called “traditional” acquisition authority to take private property by eminent domain, 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, in 1985 Senators George Mitchell (D-ME) and Bill Cohen (R-ME) introduced legislation (S.720, March 20, 1985) including limited eminent domain authority in order to appease the National Park Service and its expansionist boosters. The bill fixed an acquisition boundary near the existing park holdings but 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 it would not interfere with construction of his new home. (Much later the Park Service would produce its notes on the meeting, claiming that he agreed with their intent, and omitting their commitment not to interfere with his stated goal of building a home.)

A Cynical Pattern of Bait and Switch

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 buys only from “willing sellers.” We are told that abuses of landowners' civil rights by government agencies are only misleading “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 implications for the economy and individuals' civil rights.

• Hope that no one exposes legislative fine print and ambiguity in granting new bureaucratic powers over communities and private landowners.

• Demand “compromise” that quietly sacrifices helpless individual landowners in the name of the “public.”

• Surround private owners with land under preservationist control; they will be taken care of later as inholders who must be eliminated.

• Tell the public virtually anything in the marketing promotions in the name of scenery and “The Environment” – except the negative consequences for those ensnared.

• Smear those who speak out to defend their rights as having some other alleged ulterior motive for “destroying the environment” and the promised wilderness utopia.

• When landowners are again in trouble as a result of controls, do nothing to help in accordance with the original assurances. 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.

Play the whole process out over a long period of time – longer than most people think of – so they don't anticipate the built-in threats, and so by the time there is a manufactured perception that preservationists are “supposed” to have their property no one remembers how it got that way. Hope the word doesn't spread to other targeted regions, and if it does, smear the messengers and play the same cynical political game over again.

In this article on one of many controversies at Acadia National Park, 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 while Congress, aided and abetted by the very elected representatives who should be fighting to protect their constituents' constitutional rights, gives the federal agencies and their special-interest supporters more money and power.

The Irvins were satisfied they would be safe. They bought the property and within a few months the 1986 Acadia boundary legislation, known as the Mitchell compromise, passed Congress.

Unknown to the public, including most landowners affected, the proposed 1985 legislation had been changed at the last minute to further appease 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 property owners – both existing inholders and those on the edge of the park but in the new acquisition boundary – who had been assured the plans were not a threat were helplessly included in the coercive plans, often without their knowledge.

The Irvins, like most others, learned of the switch in eminent domain authority after the law was passed. And even worse for the Irvins, 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 interprets its authority to mean that it should be routinely exercised to the fullest extent, and park officials told the Irvins they could not build their new home. The Irvins', and others', choices were to continue to pay property 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.

Sens Mitchell and Cohen agreed that the legislative boundary was ambiguous and told the National Park Service to fix the problem. The agency fixed it by commissioning a survey to locate the disputed ambiguous boundary in their own favor, thereby including four privately owned parcels in the boundary. The owners at Round Pond have been struggling ever since.

In the summer of 1993 the Acadia Advisory Commission – a local representative group authorized by the 1986 legislation to establish a degree of local control through a mechanism of official recommendations – sided with the Round Pond families: Over the objections of both the Park Service and preservationist organizations the commission 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 refused to reverse its actions, it has been up to Congress to protect the landowners by clarifying the 1986 boundary legislation, which the Maine congressional delegation has not pursued.

The Choke Collar Pulled Tight: Extortion in the name of “Compromise”

Aside from advocates of park expansion who want more private land taken, some local opposition to the Advisory Commission's recommended boundary correction arose from those sympathetic with the Irvins and the other landowners but afraid of the National Park Service and its lobbyists who threatened to change any new legislative correction to take over even more private property. An editorial titled “All bets are off” in the local Bar Harbor Times in July 1993 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 retired National Park Service chief planner and National Parks and Conservation Association Trustee – acknowledged its lack of concern for property rights in a letter promoting government acquisition in the name of “protection” while claiming to take no position:

“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), a viro 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].”

As part of its 1988 National Park System Plan prepared with the National Park Service, the Washington, D.C.-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 wildlife refuges throughout, but mostly in rural Maine, including most of Washington County (for which the Maine Coast Heritage Trust and the State Planning Office were cited by the NPCA as sources). Friends of Acadia's Kauffmann was also credited by NPCA for his work on the 1988 NPCA Park System Plan, which cites Kauffmann and another NPCA 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 as “special interests” and threatening to use any proposed change to the legislation to further expand park boundaries at Acadia. NPCA's 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 argued that because the acquisition lobbyists had not gotten 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.

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.”

He threatened the commission, reminding it of the 1988 NPCA Park System Plan and listing the targeted areas at Acadia that preservationist lobbyists would 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.”

Blaming the Victims

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 – who had been assured before the 1986 legislation that they were safe, and in any event had no knowledge or say over the machinations in Washington, D.C. He claimed

“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 were to be paid for the property they did not want to 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 outlive 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 confirming the facts of the situation and in favor of the landowners, 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 subsequently met with Sen. Mitchell personally and with aides to the Maine congressional delegation, which was reluctant to take a stand against the preservationist pressure groups or the National Park Service. 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 [if] 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. Goodwill, honesty, wanting to right a wrong apparently isn't enough of a motivation.”

Where Are Our Representatives in Congress?

Twelve years after the Advisory Board recommendation the Maine congressional delegation has done nothing to help the property owners on the edge of the park at Round Pond or any others ensnared with land or a home inside the park acquisition boundary. The National Park Service continues to refuse to relenquish exercise of total control over their land. With nothing happening, the newspapers have been silent, but the property owners are still trapped, suffering in silence, 20 years after the 1986 boundary legislation.

The owners at Round Pond still have title to their land but don't know where to turn for help so they can safely use it. One family owns a home that had been built before the 1986 legislation passed but after its retroactively established cutoff date for condemnation, making them a target at the government's political convenience. The three other parcels can't be used under threat of condemnation. One family that still wants to use its land once tentatively gave up, trying 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 its value. Not really wanting to sell at all, they refused.

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 take over all the privately owned property – disparaged as “holes” – still caught in the acquisition boundary, a situation they demand be “reversed” by maximum exercise of authority to take it all:

Sheridan Steele.jpg
“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 they can't use their own property 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 in not appropriating all of what the preservationists want and claim a right to “Congress sent the restricted [sic] funds elsewhere, most likely to offset the federal deficit.”

But if the property owners can't get relief from this onslaught, the well-heeled, politically influential pressure groups know how to get what they want from Congress. Their new “Acadia National Park Improvement Act,” authorizing a higher ceiling on total acquisition funding and money for the pressure groups, quietly passed the Senate late last year when senators were anticipating leaving and weren't paying attention. The House Resources Committee will hold a hearing late this month. Sen. Snowe's staff recently told David Irvin, who had just heard of the bill, that they don't want any changes to the supposedly non-controversial bill so it will pass by the end of this session of Congress.

Maine Coast Heritage Trust, NPCA and other powerful NGOs (non-governmental organizations) collaborating with the National Park Service have been low-balling offers to landowners trapped in the boundaries, unable to use their property and unable to sell to anyone else. Not wanting responsibility for the land they claim to “save,” the NGOs expect government acquisition money to buy them out at a profit.

The bill authorizes over triple the original acquisition funding permitted in 1986. It authorizes unrestricted government funding (described only as “such sums as are necessary”) for a new National Park Service Visitor Center and busing facility (in competition with private transportation services) arranged for and controlled by Friends of Acadia far outside the park boundary limits set in 1986, where they bought an option on the property. Friends of Acadia, which is not mentioned in the bill – only referred to indirectly under the term “cooperative agreement” – is setting itself up as a control center over regional tourism in eastern Maine using federal funding.

Under the new legislation the local Advisory commission would be extended for another 20 years – even though for all practical purposes the commission intended for local representation appears to have been supplanted in political influence by 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.

The next time you hear someone promote the viro preservation agenda of more government control for what they call “protecting” someone else's private property at the expense of his rights and the declining rural private economy, regardless of how much you like scenery yourself, remind him how the Bar Harbor Times intoned: “No plan involving the protection of land for the public good can be implemented without pain and sacrifice” – pain and suffering for ordinary people, that is, not the wealthy well-connected viro pressure groups and land trusts fronting for government agencies. Tell him that as a decent human being in good standing as an actual member of the public, that you want no part of trampling other people's rights, or the “pain and sacrifice” inflicted on people who have no say over what is done to them in the name of what preservationists call “compromise” for the “public good.”

Copyright ©2006 Erich Veyhl, All rights reserved.

Page last updated: 6/26/06