When Michael Saporito and Larry Donoghue planned their late-summer trek through Baxter State Park, the two experienced hikers chose the little-used trails in the northwestern corner of the park over the popular footpaths near Mount Katahdin.
By the time they crossed paths with park director Jensen Bissell early last week, the hikers had seen plenty of wildlife and scenery — but not another human in two days.
“I know people who have been here [to Baxter] 100 times and have never done what we’re doing,” Saporito said during a break from the trail.
The area that Saporito and Donoghue had to themselves for several days is a far cry from the wilderness that makes up the vast majority of the park. It’s actually a working forest within Baxter where thousands of cords of wood are cut annually, generating more than $200,000 in revenues for the park last fiscal year.
Some people unfamiliar with this lesser-known part of Baxter may think it incongruous that loggers in heavy equipment cut down hundreds of acres of trees annually inside a park created to remain “forever wild.”
Few park visitors seem to even know that the 29,000-acre Scientific Forest Management Area exists within Baxter, never mind that timber harvesting takes place there.
But the area has been around, in one form or another, for more than 50 years. In fact, it was the park’s namesake and founder, the renowned conservationist and wilderness advocate Gov. Percival Baxter, who created the area and whose instructions still guide its management.
“In my travels in foreign lands, I have seen beautiful great forests that for centuries have been producing a crop of wood without depletion,” Baxter wrote in a 1955 communication to Gov. Edmund Muskie and state lawmakers. “In Sweden, Norway, Finland, Germany, Chile, Russia and elsewhere, what has been done by scientifically controlled forestry can be done in Maine.
“I now make it possible for the state to try a major experiment here at home, an experiment that can mean much for our future timber supply, which all admit is the chief natural resource of our state,” he wrote.
Tucked into the upper left-hand corner of the park, the Scientific Forest Management Area comprises 14 percent of the park’s roughly 209,500 acres. It has as many miles of roads as the remaining 86 percent of the park, and about 20 miles are open to general traffic.
Yet few people other than foresters visit the area, even though the land is open to the public much like the rest of the park.
Roughly 85 percent of Baxter visitors enter through the park’s southern gatehouse at Togue Pond. Many of the 15 percent who enter through the Matagamon gatehouse in the north are headed to the popular Trout Brook campground located outside of the Scientific Forest Management Area. Hunters are among the largest users of the area, although even their ranks are shrinking.
Observers offer a variety of reasons why the Scientific Forest Management Area attracts so few visitors.
It’s an additional hour’s drive north of the Togue Pond gate on the interstate, or a couple of hours on the Park Tote Road. The area also lacks the iconic mountains that draw tens of thousands to the southern end of the park annually.
The forest management area, in contrast, offers more of a rolling terrain dotted with remote lakes, ponds, streams and bogs. Visitors also can find rare stands of old-growth forests offering a glimpse of Maine before white settlers arrived, secluded fishing holes and the only white-water paddling opportunities in the park.
They can also see sustainable, environmentally sensitive forestry.
Bissell and Alec Giffen, the head of the Maine Forest Service and a member of the three-person Baxter State Park Authority, are pushing hard to raise the visibility of the area.
Baxter established the forest management area as a “demonstration area” of the latest forestry techniques both for the industry and the public. Yet Giffen feels as if the park has unwittingly hidden the area from a general population that often views forestry as destructive and ugly.
“We haven’t capitalized fully on what is there,” Giffen said recently. “We need to get more people up there. I feel like we need to have more publicity and more visitation by not only foresters but, probably equally important, by the public so they can see how good forestry is done.”
“Part of our intent is to inform people that forestry doesn’t have to be bad to look at,” added Bissell, who knows more about the forest management area than anyone.
A career forester, Bissell managed the area for 18 years before becoming park manager in 2005. He recently was given the state’s highest recognition for forestry — the Austin H. Wilkins Forest Stewardship Award — in recognition of his work to turn a once-overlooked part of the park into a model in sustainable timber management.
Driving down one of the area’s well-maintained logging roads, Bissell said visitors won’t see miles and miles of the same type of forest or the large-scale harvests common throughout Maine’s commercial forests.
“The roads are laid out differently, and the trees are managed differently,” Bissell said.
Harvest plots within the forest management area range in size from a few acres to more than 300, but the average harvest is a few dozen acres.
Some cuts are “partial harvests,” a common practice where many trees within an area are felled but some of the best are left to continue growing and to seed the next generation. But many others are much smaller, lighter and harder to notice if it weren’t for the signs labeling it as a harvest area.
“We try new things as we go, but we also generate revenue for the park,” Bissell said. “And in order to be successful as a demonstration forest, you have to demonstrate things that people in the industry can use.”
Baxter State Park was among the first landowners in Maine to use processors, an all-in-one machine that harvests and delimbs trees and cuts the logs to length arguably with less environmental impact. Other land managers came to the park to check out the processor and today they are in widespread use throughout the state.
The forest management area contributes about 10 percent of the park’s operating budget. Cedar, spruce and birch from the area are used to build bridges, lean-tos and other structures in the park and keep campers supplied with fresh firewood.
Of course, it’s inevitable that nerves will occasionally become frayed when you’re dealing with timber harvesting in a park known for its wilderness experience.
Hundreds of acres within the forest management area have been set aside as reserve areas where harvesting activities are restricted, but not necessarily prohibited. Many of these areas contain old-growth trees that somehow escaped the eyes — and cutting instruments — of a century and a half of loggers.
In one such area near Frost Pond, however, Bissell and management area advisers elected to conduct some harvesting amid the old-growth trees. The logging was part of an experiment aimed at stopping the spread of a destructive bark beetle.
Bissell said the experiment appears to have spared the remaining healthy trees from infection. Giffen and others adamantly opposed the harvest due to the fact that far less than 1 percent of Maine’s 17 million acres of forestland are considered old-growth or late-successional.
Standing amid towering trees — some potentially dating back to the 1700s — Bissell acknowledged that the debate over how to manage Frost Pond rages on. And although he supported the limited harvest, Bissell had an air of reverence as he talked about how these stands of old spruce and hemlock help him understand why the old poems and stories about Maine’s North Woods were written the way they were.
“It makes you realize what a lot of Maine probably looked like in 1800,” Bissell said while glancing around the cathedral-like grove of trees.
Both Bissell and his successor as park resource manager, Carol Redelsheimer, offer guided tours to forestry industry representatives as well as educators and other groups. An active 12-member advisory committee for the Scientific Forest Management Area helps guide policy decisions within the area.
Under Bissell’s leadership, the road and trail network within the forest management area grew exponentially. Today, about 20 of the 60 miles of area roads are open to vehicles. The remaining 40 miles are open to the public but only on foot.
Signs are posted throughout the area to help visitors identify the management technique and when harvesting was performed. Park crews are also developing a three-quarter-mile walking trail, easily accessible from roads, that will allow visitors to stroll through several demonstration plots to see the differences between techniques.
All of this is part of the effort to showcase the work taking place in this working forest nestled inside the forever wild Baxter Park.
In fact, hiking trails often pass through past harvest areas, as Saporito and Donoghue — the two Massachusetts hikers — learned at one point when they struggled to keep track of the path through a recent harvest.
Bissell said park staff would visit the spot to more clearly mark the trail. But they don’t reroute trails to avoid harvested areas.
“We don’t try to hide what we do or shield hikers from harvests,” Bissell said.
Giffen hopes the Scientific Forest Management Area can play a role in helping educate the public about an industry that remains one of the pillars of Maine’s economy.
“We need to get people to recognize that harvesting wood, when done properly, is environmentally responsible and has much less of an environmental impact than many other resources in our lives,” Giffen said.