Last modified Sept. 13, 2016, at 4:11 p.m.
The director of Baxter State Park has concerns with his new neighbor, the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, and how their differing management philosophies might cause problems for his park.
In order to preserve its wilderness as much as possible, Baxter strives to limit access to about 75,000 visitors annually. The National Park Service’s goals, however, include “continuing expanded use,” says Baxter Park’s Jensen Bissell.
That’s why he hasn’t waited for a series of public meetings due to start Thursday to publicly voice his concerns about the new monument property.
Bissell released a three-page open letter Monday outlining his apprehension that Katahdin Woods visitors will cross the shared boundary with the park and imperil areas left largely untouched since Theodore Roosevelt visited them in 1879.
“This is a conversation between two public agencies and we want folks who may support the park to read it and understand what our concerns are,” Bissell said Monday. “I am hoping that by putting the letter out we can take advantage of the listening sessions.”
The park service’s local leader, Tim Hudson, welcomed Bissell’s input. The two-hour listening session set for 6:30 p.m. on Thursday at Katahdin Middle/High School of Stacyville is among four meetings scheduled this month to record concerns such as Bissell’s, Hudson said.
The sessions are critical to monument officials’ plans to tailor monument features and management to local and state concerns, Hudson said.
“We are not going to put out anything that says this is our vision. We know there will be a wide variety of opinions. Many will be the same, many will be contradictory, but we want to get everybody’s thoughts in,” Hudson said Monday. “The meetings will help us put that vision in place. We want to have a general management plan in three years.”
At approximately 209,643 acres, Baxter State Park is the 87,563-acre monument’s largest single adjoining neighbor. The two share a vast stretch of border.
‘A difficult conflict’
Differing management ideas already have caused “a difficult conflict” with the park service’s other connection to Baxter, the Appalachian Trail, which the park service co-manages with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Bissell said.
The conflict specifically concerns the demands of a growing number of thru-hikers, the adventurers who hike the entire 2,180-mile trail and its 15 miles in Baxter to the trail terminus at the 5,267-foot peak of Mount Katahdin.
Trail officials have been working with Baxter leaders for more than two years to alleviate chronic friction points, such as litter, alcohol and drug use on the trail, as well as large groups ascending Baxter Peak to party in celebration of a hiker’s completion of the mammoth journey. Too many thru-hikers were inviting large parties into campgrounds set aside for trail hikers, and bringing dogs falsely marked as service animals, Bissell has said.
These issues were percolating even before ultramarathoner Scott Jurek was cited by park rangers on July 12, 2015, for creating a “corporate media event” on top of Mount Katahdin, after setting a thru-run record of the trail in 46 days, eight hours and seven minutes.
Park rangers cited Jurek for bringing champagne, littering and having an oversized group on the summit. Commercial videographers recording Jurek also were cited for violating a permit which prohibited filming within 500 feet of Baxter Peak.
Monument already drawing visitors
On Nov. 19, 2014, Bissell laid out the chronic violations in a letter he sent to Appalachian Trail officials that listed “relocating key portions or the trail terminus” as options for resolving the problems.
“We are concerned that any significant increase [in AT hikers in Baxter] will strain the current system beyond its capacity,” Bissell wrote. Park officials “do not plan on expanding lodging availability or staffing effort for AT hikers in Baxter Park.”
Those struggles continue, Bissell said Monday, and Baxter officials worry that the same sorts of problems could occur with the monument. Their biggest concern: Maintaining the pristine nature of the park with the flood of people eventually expected to visit the monument.
Traffic counts for Labor Day weekend were not yet available Monday, but as of Sept. 3, 389 vehicles had visited the new national lands since President Barack Obama created the monument with an executive order on Aug. 24. The monument offices in Patten and Millinocket had issued about 600 maps to office visitors in their first two weeks, Hudson said — encouraging early signs for monument supporters.
The National Park Service certified more than 307 million visitors to its 372 holdings nationwide, including monuments, in 2015. That’s a 4.9 percent increase over 2014 and the previous record of 292.8 million recreation visits. The service reported visitor and use increases last year in most categories.
Monument supporters hope that the economic power of park service holdings will give a much-needed jolt to the region’s economy, which has been devastated by three major paper mill closings since 2008.
A buffer zone?
Baxter officials are more concerned about the environmental impact of monument visitors. They wish to especially protect Katahdin and Wassataquoik lakes, Twin Ponds and Wassataquoik Stream, “but really I am talking about all resources on the east side of the park,” Bissell said.
Bissell’s letter warns that the monument “has numerous roads suitable for motorized access” that are “very near to the [Baxter State] Park’s eastern boundary in many locations.”
Improved motorized access within monument lands “up to or near the park’s boundary would be a serious concern” for those park lakes, and for Russell Pond, which “is considered to be the most remote place in the state.”
A trail-free zone covers at least half of the shared monument-park boundary, with the rest bordering Katahdin Lake, Bissell wrote. Keeping those areas, and several historic campgrounds within Baxter, free of large numbers of people coming onto Baxter land from the monument area is another concern.
Night lighting and buildings that interfere with Baxter’s viewshed also should be avoided, Bissell wrote. He offered to work with park service officials to keep invasive insects and fires to a minimum.
Bissell urged park service officials to consider “methods that would buffer or mitigate visitor use impacts.”
Katahdin Woods listening sessions also are scheduled for Medway Middle School on Tuesday, Sept. 20; Stearns High School of Millinocket on Thursday, Sept. 22; and a location to be determined in Bangor on Thursday, Sept. 29. All meetings will run two hours and start at 6:30 p.m.