Baxter State Park weathers tough economy

Posted May 25, 2009, at 11:54 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:18 p.m.

MILLINOCKET, Maine — This season at Baxter State Park looks promising even though reservations are about 6 percent less than last year on the revenue side, according to Jensen Bissell, park director.

Bissell said a lot of people wait for good weather before making reservations, so that percentage doesn’t mean much.

“It really has become a weather thing more than anything else; it’s within the range of last year and now it just depends upon on how good the weather is,” Bissell said Monday.

Despite the fact that many of the trails are not yet open, reservations for Memorial Day weekend showed that the campgrounds with open trailheads had a lot of people in them, according to the park director.

The Westside trails on Abol and Hunt are open but all of the Eastside trails to Katahdin that have a northern exposure are closed since they still have a fair amount of snow on them. He expected most would be open after May 31.

Business ramps up for the park in June when schools close, according to Bissell, who is in his fourth year as park director. July and August are busy months, but in the last five to 10 years, September has become one of the busiest months, he said.

“The park is really, I think, in very good shape,” which reflects well on the 22 year-round and 39 seasonal employees who work at the park, Bissell said.

Baxter State Park is funded independently, with no revenues from the state provided for its operation. A combination of revenues from trust funds; camping, nonresident and entrance fees; and from the sale of forest products within the park funds its operation, according to Bissell.

As such, the park’s economics are as difficult as everyone else’s, Bissell noted. He said the revenues from park trust funds are likely to drop or remain stable.

“We’re looking for a period when we’re going to have fairly lean operations, and we’re trying to get through this as best we can,” Bissell said. “If the economy turns around this summer and picks up, we’ll be in good shape; otherwise it could be difficult.”

Changes made over the years have helped the park. Bissell said the two-week window in which people can make credit card reservations two weeks before they arrive has generated a lot of interest.

Four years ago, the park started a program in which people can make reservations four months before their date of stay. For example, in March reservations can be made for July. Bissell said the park used to have a big opening day when individuals camped outside to get their favorite spot. While that event was considered fair for those able to attend, it was unfair for others who could not, he said. The park now has a very limited opening day where people can reserve only up to 20 percent of any campground on any day, he said.

To accommodate potential visitors, the park now has a Web site that gives the availability of spots on any given day. The site, baxterstateparkauthority.com, provides information about what campgrounds and sites are reserved, Bissell said.

“It shows people very clearly how much space is open in the park and where it is,” Bissell said. He encourages people to use the Web site as a guide before they call the park.

Other changes are on the horizon. Next year, the authority will allow all Katahdin day-use parking spots to be reserved, according to Bissell. He said the park has set limits for its parking lots and park officials have struggled with how to make it work better for visitors. Toward that end, people can call ahead and reserve a spot for $5 in the parking lots that give access to Katahdin, rather than having to arrive extremely early to make sure they get a spot. There will be no charges elsewhere in the park for parking, he said.

“Our estimates tell us that on a really busy summer day when every campground is full and people really want to climb Katahdin, we could have 300 to 400 people trying to reach Baxter Peak — that’s about as many as we think is reasonable to have,” Bissell said.

Also next year, the park will change its pricing schedule. Instead of the per-person rate now in place that differs for adults, youngsters and teenagers, there will be a per-site rate for those who want to camp in the park.

“It will make it much easier to make a reservation, and much easier for a user to calculate what their fees will be for a stay in the park,” Bissell said. It also will reduce the park’s transactions, he added.

dianabdn@myfairpoint.net

876-4579

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