Opinion - In Defense of Baxter State Park

With all the controversy going on surrounding Baxter State Park recently I've really been trying hard to bite my tongue; however, yesterday I saw a hiker friend of mine liked a link a friend of theirs posted to Facebook regarding Scott Jurek taking Baxter State Park to court regarding his three summons issued during his record-breaking hike.  The caption written by the poster was "I hope this puts Baxter Park in their place."  My silence is now going to be broken. 

Baxter State Park isn't your typical state park.  In fact, even though it is considered a Maine State Park, it is an entirely separate entity from all the others.  Baxter State Park is a special place, receiving no tax dollars from Maine residents and is only open through the collection of user fees and the grant given by Governor Percival Baxter - the man who purchased all the individual tracts of land which now make up the park in hopes of preserving the wilderness of the Maine woods in an area where logging was king for much of the late 19th and nearly all of the 20th centuries.  The park is a true wilderness area and is not allowed to expand the roads or facilities - no running water or electricity are in this park at all and this will always be the way.  

The big controversy surrounding the Appalachian Trail began in the fall of 2014, when the park composed an open letter to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy regarding the swelling problems created by thru hikers, mostly the hikers ending their hikes at Katahdin, but also by the sheer numbers of people who are entirely unprepared to hike southbound from the park as well.  This letter can be seen by clicking the link above, but lists the many problems the park has had with thru hikers in recent years.  Contrary to popular belief, the park doesn't mainly cater to thru hikers and their families.  AT hikers only make up between 2-3% of the visitors in this park every year.    

The real issue of this letter came to a boiling point very recently, on Scott Jurek's record-breaking AT thru hike, in which he finished the trail in less than 47 days and beating Jennifer Pharr Davis' record from 2011 by three hours.  Jurek was issued three summons after his summit of Baxter Peak - one for littering, one for drinking alcohol on the summit, and another for hiking with a group larger than 12 people.  Jurek plans to fight the summons in court - and this is the reason for this opinion piece.  

I am 100% on the side of Baxter State Park on this issue.  Having worked very closely with the park during my time in Maine in 2013, I have seen the problems happening in the park and understand their anger regarding this record breaking hike.  This whole issue is not about having a celebratory drink on Katahdin and that seems to be the only thing hikers are complaining about.  This issue is about violating the rules.  If you don't know the rules, that is not a valid excuse for breaking them.  For example, on my 2012 thru hike I didn't know the rules about alcohol and I popped the champagne just like many other hikers before me.  This doesn't excuse my actions and if I were issued a summons, I would plead guilty and pay the fine, as breaking the rules is exactly what I did.  Saying "I'm a good person and I pack out my trash and I didn't know" doesn't make you not guilty of violating the guidelines you are to follow on the summit.  

The thing that is making the park officials the angriest, however, is the corporate sponsorship surrounding the event.  This point is completely glossed over by many in the hiking community.  Jurek wore a Clif Bar headband and had a support vehicle following him with the logo, as well as had a documentary crew following him.  While the company following his journey had obtained a permit to film in the park, they were told filming within 500 feet of the summit for commercial purposes was prohibited.  They chose to do so anyway.  Maine's largest wilderness area was home to corporate advertising on the day of Scott's summit, which isn't allowed.  

With the popularizing of the AT with this week's new film, A Walk in the Woods, Baxter Park has grown more concerned for the future of the impacts that will be made there.  The park has already written in their letter I linked to above that they can and will consider moving the trail completely out of the park, meaning hikers wishing to finish on Katahdin will have to follow the same procedures as everyone else who wishes to climb the mountain.  While I would be saddened to see the trail move, it by no means indicates you can't hike Maine's tallest peak - it only means what most AT hikers seem to forget: You are not special or entitled just because you walked here.  In order for the wilderness of Baxter State Park to be preserved, you might just have to sign up for your Katahdin permit online or register with the park in the future.  I don't see how this would be a bad thing.  

I would love to hear your opinions as to why or why not you agree with Baxter State Park on their stance of this issue.  Please leave me a comment or comment on this post on Facebook! If you would like to read more about the park's creation or learn the history of this very special place, visit their website here