All 2017, Baxter State Park in Maine will limit the number of permits issued to Appalachian Trail hikers hoping to climb Katahdin, northern terminus of the trail, to a total of 3,150, park officials announced in late January.
The news caught many hikers off guard and caused a flurry of confusion, and even panic, when it was announced on social media. I thought I would try to clarify what the policy is and why it was initiated.
Baxter State Park hosts some 14.6 miles of the AT, including the final, spectacular ascent of Katahdin. The park is an unusual public-private entity created by the late Maine Gov. Percival P. Baxter, who acquired the first 6,000 acres in 1930. The following year, he donated the land to the state, stipulating that it must be kept forever undeveloped and wild, and he continued to acquire and donate more land until 1962. He also created a $7 million endowment to help pay for management of the park into the future.
Baxter stipulated 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,” and in its Scientific Forest Management Area, shall “become a show place for those interested in forestry, a place where a continuing timber crop can be cultivated, harvested and sold … an example and an inspiration to others.”
Today the park encompasses nearly 210,000 acres of wild forest, lakes and mountains. Per Baxter’s mandate, it is governed by an authority composed of three public officials, the Commissioner of Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Director of the Maine State Forest Service and the state Attorney General. But it is supported entirely by private donations and proceeds from the trust, not taxpayer funds. Unlike the other 2,174 miles of the AT, the trail through the park is not part of the National Scenic Trail system and is not governed by federal rules.
The park has accommodated the trail in many ways over the decades, including the purchase of corridor along the West Penobscot River with trust funds.
“Although the trail is not a designated commitment in our Trust mission, we have enjoyed a long relationship with Appalachian Trail hikers, and the managers of the AT,” the National Park Service and Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Baxter State Park Director Jensen Bissell wrote in 2014.
The park currently manages The Birches camping site for AT hikers, funds a 15-week staff position to greet and assist hikers, maintains information kiosks, keeps statistics on long-distance hikers, spends money to publicize conditions and policies, and more.
However, a rapid increase in the popularity of long-distance hiking in recent years has impacted management of the park and increased the need for staff time devoted to AT hikers. In 1991, according to the park, 359 AT hikers entered the park; in 2016, the number had jumped to 2,733.
AT hikers make up about 3% of the park’s annual visitors. However, according to Bissell, “(A)s a group, AT hikers require special attention and resources in order for us to uphold the park mission.”
In 2015, the record-setting thru hike of ultra athlete Scott Jurek brought the issue to public attention. Park rangers issued summonses to Jurek for uncorking a bottle of champagne at Baxter Peak, littering and having too many people in his party. Media were issued tickets for not having proper permits. Jurek, a truly decent guy who wasn’t out to break the rules, paid a $500 fine and bore the brunt of public criticism.
For 2017, AT hikers are required to obtain a permit before climbing Katahdin. The park will make limited numbers of permits available as follows:
NOBO — 1,350
SOBO — 610
Section — 840
Flip-floppers — 350
That’s 3,150 total — 417 more than the total issued to AT hikers in 2016. Hikers must apply for permits in person at park headquarters or the Katahdin Stream Campground office. If the overall limit is reached, the park will close The Birches, but hikers will be able to complete their hikes “by entering the Park through the Togue Pond Gate following the same process as other day use or camping visitors.”
The first thing to know is, don’t panic. If you have hiked all the way to Baxter, you’re going to be able to finish the AT, promise.
Second: Despite a common belief, Katahdin does not “close” on Oct. 15. Here’s the relevant rule: “Camping is permitted by reservation only and only in authorized campgrounds and campsites May 15 through October 15, and December 1 through March 31.”
But: “Hiking or mountain climbing may be restricted at the discretion of the Director” for any reason, including weather. But you can climb the mountain any time it is open, provided you have the proper permit.
It’s important that AT hikers understand why the park feels that 3% of its users are taking up a disproportionate (I’ve heard 15%) of staff time and resources. Surely AT hikers, as a community, can be mindful of these issues — and even be willing to call out those flouting the rules — in an effort to ensure future access to Katahdin.
Here are the major problems they see with AT hikers, according to that 2014 letter from Baxter boss Bissell to Ron Tipton, executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy:
- Hikers whining about or flouting park regulations, including: the $10 fee to stay at The Birches; ban on camping in non-designated areas; no pets allowed; no public consumption of alcohol; 12-person camping limit at The Birches. (Note: Although I did not stay overnight in the park — I hiked Katahdin and walked out to Abol Bridge — I saw that staff were very accommodating of hikers who expressed confusion and concern about camping limits at The Birches.)
- AT hikers traveling in groups of more than 12.
- Loud parties — including alcohol and drug use — at the summit.
- Hikers using fake or illegitimate “service” certificates to sneak dogs into the park. (Note: Hikers have been fined more than $250 for this deception.)
- An increase in SOBOs who, according to the park, “choose not to avail themselves of excellent information” from the ATC and elsewhere, “requiring significant staff time and guidance to summit Katahdin.” (Is that Baltimore Jack — RIP — I hear laughing…?)
- More hikers hiking “up and over” — from Baxter Peak across the Knife Edge and down the northern side of Katahdin to Roaring Brook Campground — where they expect “Park staff will undertake numerous radio calls to arrange for taxi or shuttle service.” (Note: Staff clearly prefers that hikers leave their packs and borrow a day pack for an out-and-back summit of Katahdin — I enjoyed a sweet slack-pack of the Big K.)
- Too many hikers arriving late in the afternoon, after the trail steward has left for the day, who then “stealth camp” illegally in the park.
- Too many friends and family members of thru hikers expecting to reserve public camping spots. (Note: This seems odd — if there are spots available, then why shouldn’t such people be able to reserve them?)
- “Increased confusion regarding overnight available space for thru hikers plus family” at The Birches. (Note: Sorry, this one’s on the park. I know I was confused when I shuttled in from Millinocket; I climbed Katahdin and hiked out to Abol Bridge largely because of the confusion.)
- Hikers demanding assistance from staff to arrange shuttles, taxis and administer lodging are clogging the park’s two-way radio system.
- “Tagging” — i.e. graffiti — of park facilities and features. (Note: I’d like to know how park staff determined this is primarily an AT hiker problem — I don’t know anyone who carried spray paint with them on the trail. Even if they are talking about graffiti in privies and picnic areas, how do they know who’s doing it?)
Looking at all that, here’s my advice: Don’t be an entitled dick when you get to Baxter State Park. Realize that you are a guest and don’t be a pain in the ass. Know the rules — and follow them. Surely that’s not too much to ask.
But I also want to note that the park appears to be targeting a small group of users when the problem is in fact much bigger than AT hikers (something I’ve seen other land-management agencies do when faced with rising use). According to park officials, the 3% of users who are AT hikers are taking up as much as 15% of staff time — five times the amount of other users. If true, that’s appalling — after 2,184 miles, surely most hikers (an independent lot to begin with) can get along without a lot of handholding.
At the same time, the problems I saw on Katahdin didn’t appear to be the kind I would expect to see from long-distance hikers. All those little “Maine tulips” — blobs of toilet paper adorning the verges of the trail — are, in my opinion, more likely to come from day hikers and weekenders. After all, the vast majority of thru hikers or LASH (long-ass section hikers) are by this time less squeamish about effective strategies (i.e., using a “blotter” bandana, packing out TP). (Not trying to be sexist here, but this is largely a female issue, as even Baxter staff have concluded —the TP doesn’t have poop on it, and men don’t need to “wipe.”)
Meanwhile, I saw families blundering up the mountain giving little heed to Leave No Trace principles — kids charging off over delicate tundra, people feeding wildlife or dropping tiny bits of trash (“Oh, nobody will notice!”).
And then there is this indisputable fact: Most AT hikers are leaving half the carbon footprint of the average day hiker or family, because they walk into (or out of) the park, rather than driving both ways. Ironically, once camping options are shut down, there is a very real possibility that AT hikers will treble their would-be typical carbon footprint — shuttling out to Millinocket; shuttling into the park; shuttling out.
I hate to see the park focusing so much on AT hikers when the problem is clearly greater than that. But the answer is simple: Let’s be the best possible stewards and LNT promoters we can be while exercising our privilege to hike Katahdin. And let’s not be dicks.