June 06, 2020

Heavy use threatens solitude at park

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of three stories examining how use is affecting Maine parks, increasingly popular destinations for the growing population in the northeastern United States and beyond.

Gary Ryan jumped into his Jeep Cherokee at 2 p.m. on the first day of 1991 and drove in a treacherous ice storm across Vermont and New Hampshire toward Maine. He’d slept until noon after celebrating the new year till the wee hours with family members.

By 11:20 p.m. when Ryan pulled into Baxter State Park headquarters in Millinocket, the weather had moderated and it was about 18 degrees.

Dressed warmly in a down parka, the airplane pilot walked around the parking lot, drank coffee and ate doughnuts and drew pictures in the snow for the next eight hours. At 8 a.m. when park headquarters opened, Ryan was near the head of a line of about 60 people all looking for the same thing — a piece of wilderness for a few days this summer in Maine’s fabled “forever-wild” park.

Ryan achieved his goal — a reservation for 10 days in a cabin without electricity or running water at Kidney Pond far from the speed boats and beer-swilling campers common in some public parks, but banned from Baxter’s 202,000 acres.

Pieced together beginning in 1931 from Gov. Percival Baxter’s land bequests and bigger than a quarter of Rhode Island, the park is a unique blend of primitive accommodations protected by stringent regulations. Interpreting the eccentric philanthropist’s sometimes confusing statements of intention, Park Director Irvin “Buzz” Caverly today is adamant that the protection of the park’s natural qualities comes before recreation.

A good example of that philosophy in action occurred at Kidney Pond Camps when the park authority took over operation from a private leaseholder who had been running a luxury operation by Baxter standards. Half the buildings were torn down, and electricity and running water were eliminated along with the food service. One lakeside cabin is no longer available for rental until after July because of nesting loons.

From this philosophy has sprung a growing list of strictly enforced restrictions on pets, firearms, oversized vehicles, liquor, parking, fires, building and a host of other matters.

Gary Ryan, an avid fly fisherman, was part of the lengthening lines of people who have been gathering outside park headquarters each Jan. 2 competing for choice camping spots. Two hundred dropped in by day’s end this year and 450 others had sent reservation letters, attesting to the desperate love affair people have with the country’s fourth biggest state park.

But as undeveloped countryside disappears in the Northeast, and as a growing number of recreation-hungry megalopolis dwellers poise beyond the Maine border, some people fear Baxter State Park is in danger of being loved to death.

“The park is clearly under the greatest pressure it’s ever been,” said Jerry Bley, a land-use consultant who used to sit on one of the park’s advisory committees. At risk is the primitive solitude that people travel thousands of miles to experience.

The signs are everywhere, especially in the southern end where worn trails lead to the top of awe-inspiring Mount Katahdin, Maine’s mile-high tourist magnet. Not only do people have to stand in line in January to get a chance to camp at their favorite spot in Katahdin’s shadow, but if they choose to climb the mountain on a sunny summer day they will encounter crowds on top, and a veritable parade of adventurers threading its way across the treacherous Knife Edge.

To control numbers, park officials placed a cap on campers in 1969. Spaces at such popular campgrounds as Chimney Pond, Roaring Brook, Daicy Pond and Kidney Pond are filled for the summer before the snow has melted off the mountain. Nobody keeps track of the hundreds who are turned away.

In the 1980s day use was perceived as a growing problem as the hordes of day visitors swelled 25 percent from around 40,000 early in the decade to 50,000 in 1990. (While the number of Maine residents has remained about the same, out-of-state use has climbed by about 20 percent from around 25,000 to 30,000 annually.)

Park officials have tried to control day use by limiting access to parking lots at popular campgrounds used as bases for climbing Mount Katahdin. The new rules plus rainy weather during the last two summers have reduced the numbers milling about on top of Mount Katahdin on some hot summer days from 350 to 400 people to maybe 200, Caverly said. Day use has continued to climb, however, and park rangers are studying the possibility of limiting the size of groups.

But the parking rules place a burden on day users who have to travel any distance. “If you want to climb Mount Katahdin on a weekend the average Mainer living in Augusta has to get up at 3 a.m. to get up there before the parking lots fill up,” said Bley.

In fact, that may not be soon enough, if one pauses for breakfast. The parking lot at the popular Roaring Brook Campground can fill up as early as 7 a.m. on sunny summer weekends, said Jan Caverly, reservation clerk.

Some people argue even more burdensome restrictions are necessary to control park traffic, and to protect plants and animals. For example, Jym St. Pierre, director of the Wilderness Society’s Maine Woods Project, has called for using shuttle buses to take people from the park’s entrance gate to Roaring Brook Campground, a particularly busy route.

But for now, the solution, said Caverly, is continued rigorous control and public education. “People may not get to use the park exactly on the day they want to but when they do, it will be a better experience because of our control policies,” he said.

Baxter State Park has long been a battleground for competing interests. These skirmishes have intensified as use has increased. Sometimes bitter struggles have reverberated all the way to the Augusta State House.

For example, after park officials closed the little-used West Gate, one of three entrances to the park, in order to save money and control access, a group of area lawmakers lead by Sen. Charles Pray, who owns a store in the vicinity, took the side of angry local fishermen and business owners. An effort was launched this summer to hold hostage the $60,000 appropriation the park receives from the Department of Transportation to maintain its roads until park authorities reopen the gate. The fate of the money was still unsettled Friday, part of protracted legislative budget debate in Augusta.

Tension between Maine residents and “people from away” for park space was embodied in a bill this year sponsored by Sen. Zachary Matthews, D-Winslow, which would have reserved 70 percent of park campsites for Maine residents. The bill was killed after park officials testified that about 70 percent of campers are already from Maine in all months except August.

Snowmobilers successfully lobbied to gain access to the Park’s perimeter roads in 1981, and the park staff is battling to keep control. This year is the first time that problems have developed with speeding incidents and sledding in unauthorized areas, said Caverly.

The area just outside the park’s boundary is also a concern. “The park is getting smaller, the perimeter is moving in,” Caverly said referring to a tightening noose of logging roads and expanding private businesses including campgrounds.

For example, he said he is currently concerned about a road being rebuilt by Georgia-Pacific along the park’s eastern boundary between Millinocket and Wassataquoik Stream. “If they open that country up to logging operations it will have a visual impact from South Turner Mountain, Basin Pond overview (on the Chimney Pond Trail) and Lookout Ledge near Russell Pond. But more importantly there’ll be a road system expanded in an area where there aren’t any roads now putting vehicles closer to the park boundary,” said Caverly.

St. Pierre’s organization has recommended public protection of a huge area of forest lands around the park. Without such action, he raises the specter of Baxter becoming “an island in a sea of mismanaged forest.”

Another possibility, he said, is that the paved road to the park from Millinocket will become lined with amusement parks, restaurants, motels and campgrounds much like the strip of highway between Ellsworth and Acadia National Park.

While it would happen only gradually the day may not be far off, predicts St. Pierre. “More people are looking for the kind of remote wilderness experience Baxter has to offer, and other areas of New England are offering decreasingly,” he said.

Tommorrow: Acadia’s ultimate challenge.

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