By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org). 10/22/02
KIDNEY POND - The Baxter Park Authority has approved another increase in visitor fees. At its annual fall meeting on Oct. 17, the policymaking group also indicated support for proposals to restrict vehicle access in the Scientific Forest Management Area (SFMA) and to change the reservation system to make getting accommodations more equitable.
Last May, a 30 percent fee increase for 2003 was approved by the three-member authority. The latest, second phase of the fee hike for 2004 will amount to about 20 percent above the 2003 rates. In both cases, the new fees will go into effect on Nov. 1 of 2002 and 2003, respectively, for winter reservations. Itís the first raise in 10 years.
The additional revenue will enable the park to fill critical employee vacancies created by a revenue shortfall. "We have to do this," authority member and state Attorney General Steve Rowe said, referring to the hike in fees. "We donít want to do it but donít think thereís an alternative." The authorityís advisory council supported the fee increase. No one from the public attending the meeting objected.
For entrance/vehicle fee is currently $8 per person. (Maine residents get in free.) The new vehicle rate will be $10 per person starting Jan. 1, 2003, and it will go to $12 on Jan. 1, 2004. In addition, summer fees for a tent site or a lean-to will go from the 2002 rate of $6 per person to $8 in 2003 and $9 in 2004. There will be a minimum charge for lean-tos of $16 in 2003 and $18 in 2004. A bunkhouse reservation will go from $7 per person to $9 and then to $10. The current $17 per person cabin rate will change to $22 and then to $25. Charges for bunkhouses and cabins during the winter season will be higher.
Resource manager Jensen Bissell said that the fee increases are projected to bring in an additional $125,000 for fiscal 2003, which began last July 1, and $140,000 for fiscal 2004. Another $34,000 will be realized in fiscal 2005, he said.
Park director Buzz Caverly explained that the fee increases reflect declines in revenue. However, the park does not have a budget shortfall. The operation is living within its budget, he told the authority. Specifically, itís a decrease in user fees and the timber sales that has caused the money problems, resulting in a staff shortage, as well as a reduction in capital spending.
Income from the parkís trust fund investments has suffered minimally, despite the overall stock market woes, according to finance committee spokesman Jim Garland. "The park is a rock of stability in a rather shaky sea," he reported. The primary reason is that Mellon Bank in Boston manages the trust fund assets conservatively, and a few years ago reduced the amount of interest money available to the park for spending. That prescient move by the trust managers has protected the park from a more serious financial bind.
Still, understaffing this year meant less coverage in the field and greater pressures on ranger. For instance, there were times that key campgrounds had no assigned ranger or assistant, and staff from other campgrounds had to provide coverage. Also, there were more hikers this past summer unprepared for the challenges of climbing Katahdin and had to be rescued by rangers. Caverly said the rangers worked 80 hours of overtime in just three days helping people down the mountain, taking them flashlights, water and snacks.
Caverly has assured his staff that he wants to fill vacancies for next summer but canít make that commitment until the spring when the parkís revenue situation is clearer. "I donít want to make promises now that I canít keep," he said.
Caverly reported there have been few complaints about the fee increases. However, the anticipated restrictions on motorized access in the SFMA could generate some resistance from sportsmen who use the roads for hunting.
The SFMA is a 29,535-acre area in the northwest corner of the park that is logged, using sustainable harvesting practices. Park donor Percival Baxter, a former Maine governor who died in 1969, directed that the SFMA be established to showcase "scientific forest management" of the kind he had seen in Europe.
To carry out harvesting, approximately 70 miles of roads have been built in recent years, and the total mileage anticipated will be approximately 85 to 90. In the last four or five years, about 50 percent of the new roads have been blocked to vehicles after harvesting, said Jensen Bissell, who oversees the SFMA.
The reasons Bissell gave for the road closures were to provide safety, prevent forest fires and protect the natural resources. But blocking roads is inconsistent with the management plan, and the proposed revision would take care of the matter, he said. Bissell noted that Gov. Baxter also was clear on wanting no major roads in the park beyond what was there while he was alive, and thereís reason to believe that he would not want the harvesting roads to turn into avenues for recreational access.
Bissell said that 17 miles of major trunk roads in the SFMA would remain open to vehicular use by the public, versus about 35 miles currently. At times, new spur roads could be made available for public use while harvesting operations are on-going.
Authority chairman Lee Perry, the commissioner of the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, favored informing the public about the proposed road access change before voting on it. Bissell agreed it was a good idea. The authority will revisit the plan at its December meeting.
The authority also gave the advisory committee the go-ahead to further develop ways to improve the parkís reservation system. Overnight accommodations at the park are limited, and demand is increasing.
The current practice allows users to make unlimited reservations on Jan. 1 of each year Ė if the user does it in person in Millinocket, where the park office is located. It is considered by many to be unfair. Accommodations are substantially taken for the entire season by the end of the first three weeks. As well, the onslaught of walk-in and mail requests overwhelms the park headquarters staff. The goal is to establish an equitable system that works for most people and provides the most access for the greatest number of campers.
The improvements proposed for further study by the reservations subcommittee for possible implementation on Jan. 1, 2004, are: maintain but modify the walk-in "opening day" reservation process; restrict the length of stay of persons and parties in the park; limit the number of reservations that can be made by an individual on opening day; and move to a staggered reservation system.
Presently, reservations for any park site for any month can be made at any time. The reservations subcommittee favors keeping the parkís first operational day of the year for people to make reservations but limiting the number of transactions to two per person for that day. The staggered system would allow reservations to be made in January for May only; in February, for June only; and so on. It would mean that January persons would "compete" with others who want to visit the park in May and not for the entire season.
Visitors can now stay for up to 14 days in any campground, and the advisoryís reservation subcommittee believes this is now too long. They favor a new seven-day limit for any one site and any one campground. But it would not preclude also making reservations for another campground. The average number of nights spent in the park by parties is about 2.6, and fewer than 20 parties stay more than a week. Thus, the subcommittee does not see the time limit as posing a significant burden to visitors.
Park director Caverly said that visitor increases are such (for day use) that if the park doesnít take action on use issues "ultimately there wonít be any room in the inn. Itís getting to the point that your park, mountain and trails are not big enough," he said.
At peak summer times, there is a long line of vehicles ready to enter the park at Togue Pond when the gate is opened at 5 a.m. Most parties headed for Roaring Brook or Katahdin Stream to climb Katahdin, and parking spaces are limited. Caverly said that some parties show up near the gate in the wee hours of the morning, sleeping in their cars to get at the head of the vehicle line.
They start their hike tired, and itís resulting in more rescues that put more stress on rangers, he said. John Neff, representing Friends of Baxter State Park, suggested that the advisory committee should start studying the situation "because it sounds like itís becoming a major issue, if not already. The authority directed the advisory group to look into the situation.
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