Like most people, Jensen Bissell arrives for work each day hoping he can keep his boss happy. That’s not always easy, given that his boss has been dead for almost 50 years.
Bissell plans to retire this week as director of Baxter State Park, named for the former Maine governor who was the moving force behind it and who ordered that it be kept “forever wild.” He says there are fewer and fewer people who actually knew Percival Baxter, one of the state’s greatest benefactors.
“At some point, everyone that knew Gov. Baxter will be gone and all we have to manage the park are the words that he left in the trust’s guidance,” he says.
As Bissell prepares to leave the park after 30 years, the last 12 as director, he reflects upon the written words of a complicated man and true visionary who seemed to understand that the public’s proposed uses of the 210,000-acre park would evolve over time.
“The country caught up with Percival Baxter in the 1960s with completion of the Wilderness Act, but before that I think Percival Baxter had put a lot of those ideas together,” Bissell says. “He didn’t call them the same thing, he liked the term ‘forever wild.’ But later in his trust deeds he used the term ‘wilderness’ because it was entering our lexicon as a country. So I think he was ahead of his time in a lot of what he was able to do.”
Bissell succeeded Irvin “Buzz” Caverly as director in 2005 and began a working relationship with the three-member Baxter State Park Authority, made up of Maine’s attorney general, the director of the Maine Forest Service and the commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
While politics tends to dictate who holds those positions, Bissell says he has always been impressed by the knowledge, enthusiasm and experience the board members bring to the job.
“Almost without exception, when they come to an authority meeting, their hat says AG or commissioner or director, they come off, and their hat as trustee comes on, and their thinking is directed toward, well, ‘What is our job as trustees about this park?’ I really love that about working in this job,” he says.
During his tenure, Bissell and the board approved a permit system for a growing number of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers seeking to complete their trek by scaling the summit of Mount Katahdin. The limit now stands at 3,150, but Bissell says requests for access will likely increase as the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument attracts more visitors to the region.
Still, he says, the park can only accommodate so many people to ensure the type of experience that Gov. Baxter had in mind.
“We operate the park and have for several decades under a limited-use model,” Bissell says, “where on any given day, we’re only going to allow so many people to get to Baxter Peak. That creates a tension because generally there are more people who want to get to Baxter Peak than we will allow.”
The responsibility for balancing those demands will now fall to a new director. The Baxter State Authority will launch a national search in the new year.