I read an article today about a park director who actually wants to limit the number of people who visit his park. That’s correct: he sees his job not as a custodian who can promote a state treasure, but as a guardian who excludes people because they threaten that treasure. If you can’t trust people to behave the way you want them to behave, keep them out.
The larger the number of people who come to the park, the more likely you are to have visitors who misbehave. That is exactly the ethic of leave no trace, where certain people set themselves up as superior protectors of natural beauty. You do things their way, or you stay out. If you don’t behave the way we tell you to, we’ll make sure you don’t come back.
This mentality of social enforcement is pernicious, and I have to say, perplexing. You might think, “I have a better way to treat the land. I want to promote these principles so more people can participate in the natural beauty we have all around us.” Instead, the undertone of the leave no trace ethic exemplifies Bissell’s practice as director of Baxter State Park: try to limit the number of people who come into the outdoors, because larger numbers are bound to leave traces.
When Scott Jurek ended an almost super-human run on the top of Mount Katahdin earlier this summer, was director Bissell on hand to welcome and congratulate him? No, he had a ranger issue three citations for a total of $600 in fines. Then he went online and castigated Jurek for having corporate sponsorship! Apparently that sponsorship contradicts the park’s founding charter, which requests that the land be set aside for non-commercial purposes. I guess that means you can’t sell Baxter t-shirts and hats at park headquarters in Millinocket, either.
Most astonishing of all, Bissell would like to exclude the Appalachian Trail from his park. He really wants to do that. His main reason: too many hikers. As the AT becomes more popular, he sees only a threat to his park land. Keep the unwashed hikers out, because they will trash your park.
Teddy Roosevelt would have something to say about this way of thinking. He promoted creation of national parks all over the country so people could enjoy the most beautiful spots in our great land. Baxter is more than four times the size of Acadia National Park, across the way on Maine’s coast. Acadia attracts a huge number of visitors every year, yet it remains as beautiful as it has ever been. As Bissell makes clear in his online diatribe against Jurek, he wants to keep Jurek out not because he threatens Baxter’s beauty, but because he doesn’t like him. He explains why he doesn’t like him in his post.
Let’s have more people like Jurek to inspire and encourage us. If Bissell wants to guard a piece of land against intruders, let him buy a lakefront property and a Rottweiler to keep people out. His job as custodian of beautiful parkland is to welcome visitors, not keep them out. His approach to his work is entirely wrong. If he continues to speak out against hikers on the Appalachian Trail, and continues to discourage people from coming to Baxter, let Maine’s Department of Natural Resources replace him.
A central tenet of the miser’s ethic is, “Keep it pure for those who deserve it.” That’s true of Midas’s gold, Scrooge’s guineas, and Bissell’s Baxter. Midas lost his daughter, Scrooge learned generosity, yet misers of the wilderness push their ethic of exclusion to maintain purity of nature. Life is messy, though. Hikers leave footprints. Should you limit the number of people who climb Katahdin because you don’t like too many rabble up there?
I should add that when I climbed Mount Monadnock in southern New Hampshire, a popular peak not far from Boston, I did not like to see orange peels strewn around the rocks where people enjoy a great view from the top. That’s just leaving your garbage around in plain sight. Hikers must have seen others discard their peels, and figured it was okay. In that way, the leave no trace advocates have it right: don’t do things in the outdoors that you wouldn’t want your neighbors to do in your front yard.