October 14, 2019
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Peak pressure: Numbers of mountain visitors rising across Northeast

Big names in wilderness conservation, outdoor recreation and alpine research from around the Northeast traveled to Millinocket last weekend for the ninth Northeast Alpine Stewardship Gathering to tackle some of the biggest issues facing mountains.

This year’s gathering, held Nov. 6-8 at the outskirts of Baxter State Park, is the farthest north it has ever been held. Yet outdoor professionals came from as far away as the Adirondack Mountains to attend the event, which included panel discussions, presentations and field trips showcasing the Katahdin area.

“The gathering is a place for everyone who works with alpine preservation or protection or education to come together and be able to share their tools and techniques,” Jean Hoekwater, naturalist at Baxter State Park and a lead organizer of the event, said.

“And I guess I’d have to say it’s also for inspiration, to infuse us all with energy for the work ahead,” she added.

Baxter State Park co-hosted the event at the New England Outdoor Center Twin Pine Cabins and River Drivers Restaurant in Millinocket with the nonprofit Friends of Baxter State Park and the Waterman Fund.

The biennial gathering was founded by the late Guy Waterman and his wife, Laura Waterman, co-authors of the 1993 book “Wilderness Ethics: Preserving the Spirit of Wildness,” an important text among alpine stewards.

“[The spirit of wildness] can’t be taught in the classroom,” Waterman said Saturday, speaking before attendees gathered on the shore of Millinocket Lake. “You have to get out there in it.”

Since Guy Waterman’s death in 2000, Laura Waterman has continued to attend and speak at the gatherings, sharing her perspective on the conservation of wild places.

The programming for the annual event is created through a group effort with many organizations, agencies and professionals contributing.

“It requires so many people that by the time the gathering happens, almost everyone who’s attending has a part in it,” Hoekwater said. “They either planned it or they’re presenting on a panel or they’re moderating or they’re dealing with field trip logistics. … It takes a village. It requires you to work together just to pull it off, and then people really enjoy it because they all have a part.”

Because of the venue being so far north, event organizers expected to have no more than 70 attendees. To their surprise, they had to cap registration at 90 people.

“It was really nice to have that kind of support, to have these people come to this area and understand a little bit about what we represent but also be able to share and find common ties with each other,” Hoekwater said.

Attendees included representatives from the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire, Green Mountain Club of Vermont and Adirondack Mountain Club of New York, as well as many Maine-based organizations and agencies such as the Forest Society of Maine, Maine Woods Forever, Maine Natural Areas Program, Acadia National Park and Elliotsville Plantation Inc., which sponsored the event with NOEC Twin Pine Cabins.

A common issue for alpine stewards from throughout the Northeast is an increase in people visiting the mountains, crowding trails and campsites, especially on the more famous mountains — such as Katahdin.

Baxter State Park Director Jensen Bissell talked about this issue in relation to Baxter State Park. About 70,000 people visit the park each year, he told the audience Saturday.

“Of those 70,000 people, probably half of those have on their mind as the highlight of their day trip or as the highlight of their camping trip in the park a summit of Katahdin. They’d like to get to Baxter Peak,” Bissell said. “So although we have a very large park with a very diverse landscape … a lot of our visitation, a very strong majority, are focused on doing one thing, in one place.

“So that peak is going to be a crowded place, and we ask ourselves as managers, is this wilderness that we’re managing for? Is this acceptable as an experience? And it’s difficult,” Bissell said.

Alpine stewards from other parks and wilderness areas are facing similar dilemmas.

“Our numbers are going up — they’re going up dramatically,” Julia Goren of the Adirondack Mountain Club said.

“You wouldn’t think being claustrophobic on a mountain is possible, but it does sometimes feel that way,” Jenifer Dickinson, a wilderness educator in Monadnock State Park in New Hampshire, said.

During Columbus Day weekend alone, an estimated 8,000 hikers visited Mount Monadnock, Dickenson said.

This increased visitation is causing a few challenges for stewards who are attempting to preserve the “spirit of wildness” in these places.

Problems discussed at the gathering included the improper disposal of human waste, a lack of visitor preparedness, and the trampling of fragile and rare alpine plants.

“Partying and drinking in the mountains is an issue that seems to be getting worse,” Holly Sheehan of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club said. “There was actually a keg party at Gulf Hagas this summer.”

These problems aren’t new. Parks, clubs and organizations already are working on finding solutions through social media, educational signs and other tools. At the gathering, stewards shared which methods had proven effective and which hadn’t.

Another big component of the gathering was the sharing of new alpine research.

“It’s difficult to conserve what you don’t know you have,” Aaron Megquier, executive director of Friends of Baxter State Park, said while introducing Maine botanist Glen Mittelhauser.

Mittelhauser is working on a five-year project to create the first ever complete inventory of vascular plants in Baxter State Park. After unearthing and sorting through 1,200 historic plant specimens, he spent months bushwhacking through Baxter State Park with volunteer teams, identifying and photographing plants.

“Parkwide, there were very few nonnative species we ran across,” Mittelhauser told the audience Saturday morning. “It’s fairly pristine.”

“Plants of Baxter State Park,” a guidebook compiled from the study, is scheduled to be released sometime next year.

Mittelhauser was just one of several scientists who presented research projects that weekend, and the stories from their field studies stirred a lot of laughter and engagement from the audience.

“Soil scientists don’t get to talk to people about their projects very often,” said Tony Jenkins, a Maine soil scientist who presented on his study of the distribution of mercury and other metals in high elevation areas of Baxter State Park.

After hours of panels and presentations, Saturday ended with a hot meal catered by River Drivers Restaurant and an animated performance by famous Theodore Roosevelt impersonator Joe Wiegand, who adapted his show to highlight Roosevelt’s connections to Maine and Katahdin. After leading everyone in singing “America the Beautiful,” he commended the alpine stewards for their work in preserving the country’s wild places for future generations to enjoy.

He was a fitting guest for the occasion. It was Roosevelt — the 26th president of the U.S. and a dedicated naturalist — who once said, “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm.”



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