Baxter State Park Director Jensen Bissell is retiring at the end of this year after 30 years working for park administration and 12 years as park director.
“I always felt that having the job was a real privilege and I needed to be careful I move on at the right time, and I think it’s the right time for me and the park,” Bissell said.
Bissell’s last day will be Dec. 29, the Friday after Christmas. He says that will give the Baxter State Park Authority about four quiet months, when park visitation is at a minimum, to conduct their search for the next director, who will oversee the day-to-day operations of one of Maine’s most beloved wild spaces and hiking destinations.
Bissell announced his plans to retire to park staff at the bi-annual staff meeting in mid-October.
“I don’t have any specific next plans other than a million things to do with my life and family that I haven’t had the time to do while I work,” Bissell said.
“Baxter State Park has thrived under his leadership,” said Aaron Megquier, executive director of the nonprofit organization Friends of Baxter State Park. “He’s done an exceptional job of stewarding the park and staying true to its forever wild mission.”
Baxter State Park was pieced together, parcel by parcel, by former Maine Gov. Percival Baxter between 1931 and 1962, and gifted to the State of Maine with the condition that it be kept forever wild.
Conserving some of the most mountainous terrain in the state, including the state’s tallest mountain, Katahdin, the park now totals more than 209,644 acres.
Baxter expressed his wishes regarding the management and operation of the Park in numerous communications attached to the deeds gifted to the State of Maine. In these, he stated his wish that the park “shall forever be retained and used for state forest, public park and recreational purposes…shall forever be kept and remain in the natural wild state…shall forever be kept and remain as a sanctuary for beasts and birds.”
Bissell and all who work in the park operate with those wishes in mind.
“Keeping something the same is actually very difficult,” Megquier said. “There is constant pressure to make changes that seem reasonable in isolation, but taken together would really change the character of the place over time. Jensen has steadfastly resisted those pressures, even when it meant taking a difficult position publicly. He always took the long view, and strengthened every aspect of Baxter State Park’s management that I can think of. I think his good decisions are going to be having a positive impact on the Park for a very long time.”
The park is managed by the Baxter State Park Authority, a three-person team consisting of the attorney general of the State of Maine, the director of the Maine Forest Service and the commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The Authority operates Baxter State Park through the park director and administrative staff, which consists of a chief ranger, park naturalist, business manager and resource manager. In addition, the park currently employs 22 year-round and 39 seasonal employees.
Bissell started working at Baxter State Park in February 1987 as resource manager for the park’s 29,537 acre Scientific Forest Management Area. In 2005, he was selected by the Baxter State Park Authority to become park director.
“I never anticipated becoming director of the park,” Bissell said.
Looking back on his tenure as park director, Bissell said he did what he could to prepare the park for the future.
“I spent a lot of time on the hiring practices, making sure they were fair and tried very hard to get the best people we could for the park,” Bissell said. “I’m really proud of our staff … Training professional staff is important. We’ve reviewed almost every position in the park … I think I’ve made the park more competitive in the workplace, really proud to keep the staff paid what they should be, up to date and trained really well.”
Bissell also improved plans to sustainably maintain the park’s infrastructure, including the park’s roads, bridges, culverts, campgrounds and 215 miles of trails.
“I’ve always said trails are the heart of the park,” Bissell said. “We need to do what we can to make sure the maintenance is suitable to make sure those trails are there for our grandkids.”
In recent years, Bissell has worked to relocate a number of trails in the park that were originally built in places that are difficult to maintain. Examples of these projects include the relocated trail on Mount OJI and the $100,000 project to relocate the famous Abol Trail on Katahdin.
In his retirement, Bissell plans to enjoy those trails as a park visitor.
“I’d like to visit the park as a visitor without having to feel like I’m working there — be able to do what I want and spend time at it. I’ve always missed being able to enjoy the park as a visitor.”
He also plans to explore Maine’s 281 miles of Appalachian Trail, though probably not all at once, as well as trails along the Bold Coast in eastern Maine and the Mahoosucs in western Maine.
“I have a dog, and I like to take her,” Bissell said. “That’s one reason I’ve hiked Gulf Hagas 50,000 times.”
Bissell also plans to hike with his fiancée, Breena Whitcomb, chief negotiator for the State of Maine. They met at a Friends of Baxter State Park meeting in April, and they became engaged on Dec. 1, Bissell said.
“We’re pretty happy,” Bissell said.
Also in retirement, Bissell looks forward to diving into some hobbies such as biking, golfing and gardening. And he and Whitcomb have some overseas trips planned. But no matter where he goes or what he does, he’ll carry a bit of Baxter State Park with him.
“If you work in the park, it kind of gets into you, and you really take a piece of it with you,” Bissell said. “It’s a really good thing.”
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