By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org). 5/13/02
After holding the line on fees for 10 years, the Baxter Park Authority has approved a two-phase increase in visitor fees. The additional revenue will enable the park to avoid a budget shortfall and soften the impact of the stock market decline. Fifty-seven percent of the park’s revenues come from its trust fund investments in stocks and bonds.
The plan is to hike fees up to 50 percent over the next two years. Camping and non-resident fees will increase 30 percent initially, and another increase is planned for 2004. All three members of the policymaking authority voted in favor of the higher fees at their annual spring meeting at Kidney Pond campground on May 10.
With operating costs for the wilderness park going up, raising fees had been discussed before the stock market downturn after September 11. When it became clear that the park could be facing a $475,000 budget shortfall by 2005, the fee increase became important to deal with immediately, according to park director Buzz Caverly.
Caverly’s staff and the park’s new investment committee were crunching numbers almost up to the hour of the authority’s meeting. He was happy to report that operations reductions and the fee increases would result in a balanced budget without compromising the park’s resources.
The $2,778,188 budget approved for 2003 was about $90,000 less than the original proposal. The $1.55 million contribution to revenues from the park’s investments will be $130,000 less than last year’s income from that source. The increase in recreation fees will make up most of the losses.
Before his death in 1969, park donor Percival P. Baxter established trust funds of about $7 million for the preserve to operate financially independent of the state park system. The trust accounts are worth $58.6 million today and are managed by Mellon Bank in Boston.
The spending guideline for trust funds was revised signficantly in 2000, reducing the amount available to the park. Jim Garland, chairman of the investment committee, advised the authority last week that that the financial squeeze is "tighter than in recent years." The $1.55 million from the trust funds "is doable," he said, but Garland expressed hope that the line could be held at that spending level for a couple of years, unless there’s a Wall Street rally.
Steve Rowe, the attorney general and authority member, asked Caverly how the decrease in revenues would affect personnel. Caverly said "it probably would be wise" to impose a hiring freeze, but no current employees will be laid off. Spending for casual labor, road construction, more handicapped accessible facilities, and repairs will be postponed. Purchasing some major equipment will also be delayed.
The 30 percent increase in park fees will raise a projected $113,000 – most of it, or $101,902, from summer camping. What that means is that the summer rate per person for a lean-to rate will go from $6 to $8; a cabin, from $17 to $22; a bunkhouse bed in, from $7 to $9. Similar increases in winter fees are projected to generate $8,856 more in revenues. The entrance fee for non-residents will increase 25 percent from $8 to $10 to raise an additional $2,400 of revenues. If a 20 percent hike is approved for 2004, it would generate $43,000, again most of it, or $25,467, from summer camping.
Authority chairman Lee Perry, commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, invited members of the public attending the meeting to respond to the fee increases. But no one spoke up.
Perry was reluctant to vote on the proposed 20 percent fee increase for 2004. "There are a number of unknowns out there," he pointed out. A decision on just how much more income is needed should be delayed until the authority can see the next budget and revenue projections in the fall, Perry said.
Park advisory committee member Philip Ahrens commented that the authority members will likely change because a new governor will be elected in November. (The governor picks the fish and game commissioner and the Forest Service director, while the majority party in the legislature elects the attorney general.) It takes new authority members awhile to "get up to speed" on park issues, Ahrens said, and he urged the current authority to complete the fee increase plan before they are replaced.
Because of the reservations system works, the 2003 fee increases will actually take effect in November of this year when winter users make reservations. The hikes for summer camping and gate access will be in effect the first of January when the park begins taking reservations.
In other park business, Caverly said the eroding dam at Katahdin Stream campground will be dismantled this fall. A new site near Katahdin Stream campground and the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) has been made for thru-hikers, moving them from quarters at Daicey Pond. There will be a limit of 12 people at the two lean-tos and one tent platform.
Caverly told the authority he had assigned himself the task of opening up Russell Pond for the summer. It will be the first time in 41 years that he has taken on the job of cleaning up the ranger’s cabin and campground facilities, stacking wood and putting the visitor canoes in place.
Russell Pond holds special significance for Caverly because his first duty as a ranger duty was at the remote area, a seven-mile hike from the drive-in campground at Roaring Brook. He said his days of fishing and hunting are in the past, and he intends enjoy four days of "getting out on the trails."