ACADIA NATIONAL PARK — For 15 years Meg Burden used the carriage trails and winter roads of Acadia National Park to teach young people leadership and cooperation skills working with sled dogs in her Pulling Together youth programs.
Last Friday, Burden and her sled dogs were in Acadia for the last time now that park officials are clamping down on existing park regulations prohibiting certain dog-related activities in the national park.
Ending the program was a heartbreaking decision, Burden said Tuesday.
Burden had always gotten a special permit for the in-park dog-powered activity, but last fall she was told it would be her last.
“There are federal regulations in all the national parks that limit dogs to being on leashes with a maximum length of six feet or in crates,” Stuart West, chief ranger at Acadia, said this week. “The issue here is the six foot length because you need something longer to run dogs.”
Those regulations have been on the books for years, West said, but had not been strictly applied to Burden’s group in the past.
“She was able to get a special permit,” West said. “It was felt it was a good thing because we saw the benefits of getting kids into the park.”
Burden said her permit was patterned after one governing sled dog activities in Alaska’s Denali National Park.
“When we started we used the six-mile loop around Eagle Lake,” Burden said. “We were on it pretty frequently.”
In 2006, when the six-foot leash law came into effect, Burden said she and her teams were met one day at a park gate by a “teary-eyed” ranger telling them they were no longer welcome there.
“As you can imagine, I was speechless,” Burden said. “I mean, I grew up with a father who was a ranger at Acadia for 27-years and I have a very healthy respect for the park.”
So Burden contacted officials at Denali who helped her craft a permit — which even mandated poop-scooping — and that was acceptable to Acadia National Park officials.
From that point on, Burden, for the most part, confined her winter dog sledding activities to areas used mostly by snowmobiles in the park, West said.
“We have been going strong every year and added a summer program using wheeled rigs,” Burden said. “We run on the trails, we clean up after the dogs and we never break any laws.”
West became chief ranger in 2009 and, while he said he did hear some concerns from people regarding the dogsledding in the park, officials adopted a sort of live-and-let-live policy when it came to Pulling Together primarily because so many youth benefited from the experience.
For her part, West said Burden has always been cooperative and anxious to work with park officials.
But as the years went on, and Burden’s program branched out to include spring and fall with the dogs running on park trails with wheeled carts when there was no snow for sleds, more people expressed concern about the working dogs in the park, West said.
As dog-powered sports grew more popular, West said he also began seeing more skijorers using the park trails. Skijoring is a sport in which dogs and humans run and ski together, connected by a single line.
“Because the skijorers are often going on the carriage roads, the groomers were getting mad about the dog prints on the trails and the dogs running on the ski tracks,” West said.
So, the decision was made last year to ban the skijorers based on the leash-length regulation, he said.
“We really could not say the sled dogs were allowed, but the skijorers were not allowed,” West said. “So it all came together at the same time.”
That decision was made a bit easier for West because two years ago Burden moved her program and sled dogs to Fort Kent for the winter season to train for the Can Am Crown International Sled Dog Races and did not renew her special Acadia park permit for that year.
That helped his staff reach the decision to strictly enforce the working dog ban and refuse to grant a new permit to Burden, according to West.
He said he had discussed with Burden contacting officials at other large landholdings open to the public on Mount Desert Island to see if there would be trails available for Pulling Together.
For her part Burden, who suffers from Lyme disease, said she really does not have it in her to push for a new permit and has decided to move her operation and 10 dogs west to central Oregon.
“We are going to pick up stakes, pack up the babies and grab the old ladies and head out to Oregon,” she said with a laugh. “Dog sledding is very welcome out there.”
As for Acadia, West wants to see it remain dog friendly, as one of only five national parks in the country that allows leashed dogs on its trails.
“Acadia has long been known as a mecca for dog owners and we want to promote that,” he said. “We encourage dogs on the trails but they have to be on a six-foot leash (and) when we see them off leash we need the owners to know they are doing a disservice and giving the anti-dog people more ammunition to try and keep all dogs out of the park.”
Burden said she is going to miss Acadia and the work she did there with more than 400 Maine youths over the years.
“Last Friday was our last day and there were a lot of tears at the end,” she said. “We had a good run for 15 years and it has been an honor to go dog sledding in Acadia National Park.”