July 18, 2019
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Rise in Appalachian Trail hikers causes tension in Baxter State Park

BAXTER STATE PARK, Maine — In 1998, traffic toward Mount Katahdin — the end of the Appalachian Trail — rose with the release of Bill Bryson’s book “A Walk in the Woods.”

Now the movie version of “A Walk in the Woods,” starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte and due for release on Sept. 2, has AT and Baxter State Park officials bracing for another surge in popularity for the trail and its famous terminus.

Big media events like a Hollywood film “can tell people who would not normally hear about the trail that it is there,” said Claire Polfus, Maine conservation resources manager at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

But if Redford’s film does well at the box office, it could become known as the reason Appalachian Trail hikers find themselves no longer welcome in Baxter State Park.

The movie is coming amid tension between trail hikers and park authorities, particularly over the demands from a growing number of thru-hikers, the adventurers who hike the entire 2,180-mile trail, the last 15 of which is the trail in Baxter State Park to the peak of Mount Katahdin.

Trail officials, like Polfus, are working with park leaders to alleviate chronic friction points, such as litter, alcohol and drug use on the trail, as well as large groups ascending Baxter Peak to party in celebration of the mammoth journey. Too many thru-hikers are inviting large parties into campgrounds set aside for trail hikers, and bringing dogs falsely marked as service animals, said Jensen Bissell, the park’s director.

These issues were percolating even before ultramarathoner Scott Jurek was cited by park rangers on July 12 for creating a “corporate media event” on top of Mount Katahdin, after setting a thru-run record of the trail in 46 days, eight hours and seven minutes.

Park rangers cited Jurek for bringing champagne, littering and having an oversized group on the summit. Commercial videographers recording Jurek were also cited for violating a permit which prohibited filming within 500 feet of Baxter Peak.

Bissell said Jurek’s case is the most visible of a disturbing trend park officials have seen — but not the first. On. Nov. 19, 2014, Bissell laid out the chronic violations in a letter he sent to Appalachian Trail officials that listed as options for resolving the problems “relocating key portions or the trail terminus.”

“We are concerned that any significant increase [in AT hikers in Baxter] will strain the current system beyond its capacity,” Bissell wrote. Park officials “do not plan on expanding lodging availability or staffing effort for AT hikers in Baxter Park.”

The Jurek incident was particularly galling, said Doug Denico, chairman of the Baxter State Park Authority, a three-member board of state officials who oversee the state park. Denico is also director of the Maine Forest Service.

Jurek and his party “had an agreement with [Bissell] where they would abide by the rules and then they went to the top and it was disregarded,” Denico said. “They didn’t do what he asked them to. What happened would not have happened if people obeyed the rules.”

At the root of the problem, Bissell wrote in the November letter, might be the conflicting agendas of the state-run park and the federally managed trail.

Baxter State is a wilderness park, that, to quote its mission statement, “shall forever be kept and remain in the natural wild state.” It features unpaved roads, no electricity, and rustic facilities.

According to its mission statement, the Appalachian Trail’s goal is to provide first “for maximum outdoor recreation potential as an extended trail.” Trail hikers can expect a grueling, exhilarating trek, but they can often drop off the trail to visit motels and restaurants.

The park, Bissell wrote, has a steady visitor base — it’s about 63,000 annually — while the AT is continually promoted to expand its capacity, with federal officials placing no emphasis on trail sustainability.

Three million people hike some portion of the trail annually. Trail traffic increased by 60 percent in the two years after the 1998 release of Bryson’s book and has increased by 10 percent annually since 2010, officials said.

According to Baxter statistics, 2,017 long-distance hikers registered at the park in 2014. That’s up from 1,476 in 2010 and 1,049 in 2005.

Park officials are working to develop a count of the number of thru-hikers Baxter can accommodate, said Polfus. With the rising number of hikers on the entire trail, she added, “there are more people not being respectful of the trail and of park regulations.”

“It is an issue we are seeing up and down the trail but it is coming to a head with Baxter because they are a wilderness park,” Polfus said.

Bissell counted 11 steps the park has taken in recent years to accommodate AT hikers. They include setting aside 12 spots in The Birches camping site — the only camping site where reservations are not required — for thru-hikers only. Baxter also has dedicated a part-time worker, information kiosk, brochures and online listings to informing AT hikers of park rules, he wrote.

Denico couldn’t see the park doing more for AT hikers in Baxter, but said trail managers should.

“I think it is their turn to figure out what needs to be done rather than have it on our backs. I think we have bent over backwards and hosted them,” Denico said. “I think it is time that they came up with some solutions.”

The release of the Redford movie could be a milestone in these efforts. Appalachian Trail officials are preparing for a nationwide increase in hikers spurred by the film, Polfus said, advertising a #protectyourtrail campaign on social media that features ads from the film and offers tips on trail ethics, maintenance and behavior standards.

A committee of trail conservers, national and state park officials and others with a stake in the trail has been formed to address Baxter issues. Trail volunteer groups have caretakers at three locations outside the park who instruct thru-hikers on park regulations, Polfus said.

“We have also been working with hostels in trail towns to discuss hiker education,” Polfus added, “and we have posted posters about Baxter State Park in all of the lean-tos in the 100-Mile Wilderness.”

That is a section of the Appalachian Trail running between Abol Bridge just south of Baxter State Park and Monson.

“We hope that thru-hikers, by the time they get to Baxter, have heard from at least one person about the rules,” Polfus said. “Hiker education is the biggest thing.”

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