Changes in climate, technology, leadership and tourism are impacting Baxter State Park, a special place that many people wish would never change.
On a recent fall day, the park’s director, Eben Sypitkowski, went on a short hike in the north end of the park. Along the way, he shared some of his thoughts about the future of the park and the challenges that he has faced during his first year as park director.
“As I’ve tried to learn about leadership and how to lead an organization like this one, something that’s been a constant attractive framework for that is this notion of facilitative leadership,” Sypitkowski said. “Leaders are no longer sort of the hero that comes in and has all the great ideas that are going to solve everything. … We’re shifting away from that toward where leaders are hosts of conversations held between all those that are concerned about a particular thing.”
While standing on a ledge near Lower South Branch Pond, the 36-year-old park director pointed out the composition of the surrounding forest. Red pine, maple, birches — the species of trees told him a story that most other people wouldn’t see.
“This was likely a forest type that was created by one of the fire events that happened in the early 1900s,” Sypitkowski said.
Prior to being hired as park director, Sypitkowski spent four years as the resource manager for the park’s 30,000-acre Scientific Forest Management Area.
The forest is just one aspect of the park that’s always changing, he said. Trees grow and are blown down by the wind. In rare cases, fire destroys parts of the forest, which then regenerate. As resource manager, Sypitkowski was constantly keyed into these natural changes.
Yet in Baxter, Maine’s beloved park, man-made alterations, especially ones that affect recreation, are not something that park administration takes lightly. And often, when changes are made, there’s pushback from people who have been visiting the park for decades.
“A lot of the feedback that we get from the staff and the public is we don’t want any part of this to change,” Sypitkowski said, “and we don’t want to move any part of this experience outside of the sort of realm of variability it’s had — which is tricky.”
Sometimes, change is inevitable.
Covering 209,644 acres at the heart of Maine, Baxter State Park is a unique place that features pristine ponds, scenic waterfalls and some of Maine’s most majestic peaks, including Katahdin, the state’s tallest mountain. The majority of the park was donated to the people of Maine by Percival Baxter, who served as the state’s governor from 1921 to 1925.
The Deeds of Trust, which transferred Baxter’s lands to the state of Maine, stated that the lands: “… shall forever be used for public park and recreational purposes, shall forever be left in the natural wild state, [and] shall forever be kept as a sanctuary for the wild beasts and birds.”
“We’ve got this long rich history of trying to interpret and understand what Gov. Baxter was after as he donated these parcels of land to the people of the state of Maine,” Sypitkowski said.
Unlike Maine’s other state parks, Baxter State Park is governed by three public officials: the commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the director of the Maine Forest Service and the attorney general. Known as the Baxter State Park Authority, these three officials operate the park through the park director — Sypitkowski — and administrative staff consisting of a chief ranger, naturalist, business manager and resource manager. The park also works closely with an advisory committee of 15 citizens.
Since Sypitkowski was hired as park director in June of 2018, that management team has undergone some huge changes.
After Gov. Janet Mills was elected last year, as is customary, she appointed new officials to many roles — including those that make up the Baxter State Park Authority. In addition, Baxter State Park Authority appointed a new park naturalist, resource manager and chief ranger over the past 13 months.
This overhaul of park management has brought new perspectives and ideas to the table when it comes to operating the park.
“I think what we have to do in the short term is step back and sort of take stock of where we are,” Sypitkowski said, “how the world is changing around us, and how we are interpreting these notions of ‘forever wild’ or wilderness that Gov. Baxter put forth 75 years ago.”
“We’re entering into this management planning process that we’ll be engaged with the better part of next year, which will be initiated by staff,” he said, “and then we’ll move out to having conversations with the public as well.”
Looking to the future, there are several outside forces that may impact the park, including climate change, increasing park visitation and improvements in technology.
For example, visitors currently don’t get cellphone reception throughout much of the park, a fact that forces them to “unplug” from their electronic devices. In the future, as technology continues to improve, that may not be the case. The park will need to decide how to address that reality.
“How do we manage the fact that that technology isn’t something we can control, and it can potentially take away from that kind of experience that we’ve provided for several decades and seek to provide in the future?” Sypitkowski said.
While park management cannot prevent all changes in the park, Sypitkowski said they do have a “mission of trying to protect an experience from rapid change.”
“[Baxter] is a place where people can come and have their own interaction with the natural world,” he said. “It’s not a place where this is structured by any commercial interest. There’s no gift shop here. You just come, and there are sort of natural and minimal ways you can access this beautiful dynamic landscape and have your own connection with nature.”
To stay up-to-date on discussions about the future of Baxter State Park, and to weigh in, visit baxterstatepark.org or follow the park on Facebook at facebook.com/baxterstatepark. Another good way to get involved is by checking out Friends of Baxter State Park, an independent citizen’s group that supports the park, at friendsofbaxter.org.