Baxter State Park officials met with representatives of several organizations Tuesday to raise concerns about some long-distance hikers’ abuse of park policies while summiting Mount Katahdin and the challenges posed by the growing number of Appalachian Trail “thru-hikers.”

Although the concerns are not new, the issue erupted last week when Baxter State Park Director Jensen Bissell publicly criticized ultra-marathon runner Scott Jurek for his mountaintop celebration and his corporate sponsorship after Jurek set a world record by completing the 2,185-mile-long Appalachian Trail in just 46 days.

Photos of Jurek popping a champagne bottle next to the iconic sign marking Baxter Peak – in violation of the park’s no-alcohol policy – were picked up by news outlets around the country. Jurek was cited later that day by park rangers for alcohol consumption as well as for littering and for hiking with a group larger than the park allows, although his supporters have disputed the latter charges. A camera crew following Jurek was also cited for filming too close to the summit.

Tuesday’s meeting was planned in response to a litany of concerns that Bissell laid out in a November letter to officials at the National Park Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Those concerns included: Thru-hikers camping in unauthorized locations, attempting to hike in large groups, drinking alcohol or smoking pot on Katahdin’s summit, “tagging” signs or natural features in the park with graffiti, consuming staff time/resources, and displaying an “open and deliberate … desire for freedom from all rules and regulations.”

But Jurek’s high-profile visit to Baxter’s best-known peak – and park authorities’ stinging public response to it – have sparked a lively social media debate about Baxter’s strict (or overly strict) regulations, hiker behavior and how to balance growing interest in the outdoors with the obligation to preserve special places.

“The timing of this face-to-face meeting is fortuitous, as more dialog is certainly needed as well as more education of (Appalachian) Trail users, especially thru-hikers reaching Baxter State Park,” the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the nonprofit that contracts with the federal government to oversee management of the trail, wrote in a statement released before the meeting. Groups attending Tuesday’s meeting included the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, Friends of Baxter State Park, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association.

“Our goal was to work together to find positive, collaborative solutions to the problems Baxter State Park is facing related to AT thru-hikers,” Aaron Megquier, executive director of Friends of Baxter State Park, wrote in an email Wednesday evening. “Everyone came to the meeting with an open mind and deep respect for the mission and wilderness values of Baxter State Park. We had a productive meeting and generated some great ideas.”

Representatives of several organizations attending the meeting could not be reached Tuesday or Wednesday. Jurek did not respond to a request for comment.

STAYING ‘FOREVER WILD’

More than 800 comments were posted below Bissell’s original Facebook message criticizing Jurek’s actions and accusing the professional athlete of bringing a corporate-sponsored event into the 209,000-acre wilderness park.

“Scott Jurek’s recent completion of the Appalachian Trail in the shortest time on record is a remarkable physical accomplishment,” Bissell wrote. “With all due respect to Mr. Jurek’s ability, Baxter State Park was not the appropriate place for such an event.”

While hundreds of commenters blasted the posting and its tone, others defended park officials’ determination to protect the sanctity of a park intended to remain “forever wild.”

Although much of the Appalachian Trail is protected under the federal government’s National Scenic Trail system, the northernmost 15-mile section of the trail “is hosted at the consideration of the Baxter State Park Authority,” Bissell wrote.

But growing interest in long-distance hiking – fueled by the success of books such as Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” and Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” – is adding to the management challenges faced by Baxter and other parks along the corridor of the Appalachian Trail and its western counterpart, the Pacific Crest Trail.

SHARP RISE IN ‘THRU-HIKERS’

The number of registered long-distance hikers at Baxter State Park jumped from 970 in 1998 – the year Bryson published his account of attempting to “thru-hike” the Appalachian Trail – to 1,449 just two years later. Those figures had swelled to a record 2,017 last year, and trail managers are expecting another increase after this summer’s release of the movie version of “A Walk in the Woods” starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. Roughly one-quarter of intended thru-hikers complete the entire trail, which stretches from Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin.

Last November, Bissell wrote that some thru-hikers were openly flouting the park’s prohibitions on alcohol, marijuana and dogs as well as restrictions on hiking group size and camping. He also noted that providing recreational opportunities is secondary to protecting the natural resources under the “deeds of trust” left by the park’s creator and namesake, the late Gov. Percival Baxter.

In that letter and again in his Facebook post last week, Bissell suggested that the Appalachian Trail may have to end somewhere other than atop Mount Katahdin if something is not done to address the issues.

“From the perspective of Baxter Park, we are concerned that the use of the AT within Baxter Park is nearing, or may have surpassed, an acceptable limit for the facilities and effort available from the park to accommodate AT hikers,” Bissell wrote in his letter to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the National Park Service officials. “In addition, we are concerned about the impact on the wilderness experience for park visitors on Katahdin if current trends continue.”

Wendy Janssen, superintendent of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail with the National Park Service, said her agency “does not advocate” popping champagne bottles or engaging in other activities that could disturb other trail users. Janssen was unable to attend this week’s meeting in Maine but said she contacted Bissell after the November letter.

“I know we will be able to resolve this issue as well because we all care about preserving and protecting our public lands,” Janssen said.

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.