Sunday's New York Times featured an article about the possibility of rerouting the end of the storied Appalachian Trail (AT) away from Katahdin and Baxter State Park in Maine. For nearly 80 years the AT has run from Springer Mountain, GA to Mount Katahdin, ME. The 2180 mile trail has seen minor route changes over time, but none so significant as what Jensen Bissell, Director of Baxter State Park in Maine, is suggesting. In addition to threatening to alter the route, Bissell is considering putting a cap on the number of long-distance hikers, perhaps by requiring permits. He said his goal was to “make sure that the 2,000 people we have today won’t become 3,000 next year or 8,000 in 10 years” (NY Times). Bissell's logic is that thru hikers (people who hike the entire AT) are ignoring the Leave No Trace principles that help Baxter remain "wild and natural". He is concerned that the fall release of the movie, "Walk in the Woods", written by Bill Bryson and starring Robert Redford, will encourage many more people to hike the AT.
Isn't that the point?!?!? Weren't state parks and long distance trails created with the sole purpose of enabling people to get outside. Aren't we living in a time when every day we are inundated with messages about the unhealthiness of America and Americans? We buy FitBits and pedometers to make sure we get our 10,000 steps in every day. We have apps that beep every hour to remind us to get up from our desks and walk around, but the travesty of the day would be if too many people hiked the AT!
The numbers do not support Bissell's hyperbolic claims. 2013 had the highest number of Northbound (GA to ME) thru hikers on record and even then only 589 hikers reached Katahdin. The completion rate over the past 6 years averages 27% (www.appalachiantrail.org). 2250 people started at Springer Mountain, GA in 2013 but that's the closest I can come to Bissell's claim that 2000 thru hikers summited Katahdin last year. He is fear mongering in a way that can only hurt hiking.
What can one man do to an entire recreational activity you ask? By requiring permits and applications, Bissell will further restrict access to an activity that should be open to all people. Already hiking has become a stratified leisure activity for the privileged. Gear has become incredibly expensive and seemingly necessary. I read on many gear lists, "Gore-Tex and Vibram soled boots are required". These boots will run you a cool $250-$350. Sure they are nice, but you can hike most trails in a decent pair of running shoes. And yet, we are led to believe that we have to be imminently prepared in terms of gear, fitness, skill, and trail knowledge before we even head out. If you read or watched Cheryl Strayed's "Wild", you've no doubt witnessed the criticism she was subject to for going out into the woods totally inexperienced and unprepared. To be sure, she was unprepared, but we all have to learn somewhere and since we are not taught to hike and camp in school, she had to learn as an adult. No one calls out the fact that she grew up in a single parent household with no money and no time or space to build recreation and fitness into her daily life. And they blame her, and only her, for her drug addiction. On the surface hiking seems to be the most egalitarian of recreational pursuits, but how many people of color or economically disadvantaged people do you see on the trail? Requiring a permit will only add a further layer of gatekeeping that will restrict access to the natural world for many people.
What if the solution is not more restrictions, but more access, education and a greater investment in our state and national parks? What if rather than address trash and destruction of trails with limits and bans, we address it with education? Leave No Trace (LNT) is a set of ethics and practices that are based upon leaving the natural world in a better state than we found it. Wouldn't it make sense to hire people (yes, provide jobs) to teach hikers LNT principles? That to me seems like a far better solution than simply cutting off access to our national parks for all but the most intrepid among us.