How We Lose Access to Wild Places

kayak campsite on Lake Superior Water Trail

Recently, Scott Jurek, a long distance runner, completed a record-breaking run from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail (AT). He finished the trail in 46 days, 8 hours, and 7 minutes. That’s quite an accomplishment and I’m sure from a runner’s perspective and the perspective of a FKT (Fastest Known Time) enthusiast it’s an amazing way to travel the AT. It took me almost six months to do the same. I met a trail runner on my 1996 thru-hike, and ended up spending a night with him in a trail shelter when he missed the canoe shuttle across the Kennebeck River. If I remember correctly, he thought that would cost him the record. He ended up finishing a short time after that at the northern terminus of the trail. I had started there heading south just a week or so before.

Bryan Hansel on the AT
Me on the AT in Virginia.

The northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail is currently and has always been Mount Katahdin. It’s within Baxter State Park and managed not by the state but due to its unique history by the Baxter State Park Authority. Northbound thru-hikers celebrate on the summit, often hike together in large groups and crack a beer on the summit. Unfortunately for hikers, hiking in large groups isn’t permitted and drinking alcohol in the park is forbidden. Jurek got caught up in a celebration and was cited or summoned, as they call it in Maine, for hiking in a group larger than 12, consuming alcohol and littering. It should be noted that many of the people on the summit were not in Jurek’s group. His group included 12. Other people hiked up of their own accord and some people who had hiked up earlier in the day knew nothing about Jurek until he arrived and they stuck around.

The citation for littering was because he spilled some champagne on the ground. The Portland Press Herald quoted Baxter Park Director Jensen Bissell as saying, “We really don’t think that the top of Katahdin should smell like a bar.” I’m going to digress and say that the Ranger who summoned acted a little overzealously about the champagne and Bissell’s argument about smelling like a bar is somewhat laughable. It seems like they were looking for anything that they could summon him with. I’m doubtful that they summoned any five-year-old kid who split milk. The charge that spilling a drinkable liquid is littering seems ridiculous.

More to my point: in a response to Jurek’s celebration, in what I’d call an unprofessional post, Bissell used Facebook to rant against Jurek and the Appalachian Trail. He wrote, “The Authority is currently considering the increasing pressures, impacts and conflicts that the Appalachian Trail brings to the Park and if a continued relationship is in the best interests of Baxter State Park.” When viewed in the light of a letter that Bissell wrote to the Appalachian Trail Conference, it seems like he is threatening to kick the AT out of the park. While I question the management ability of a park manager who takes to Facebook to threaten a National Scenic Trail, it does bring up a point. Managers will respond to rule breakers often in disproportionate ways that punish entire user groups instead of individual users.

It isn’t just on the Appalachian Trail. In Minnesota, Randy Bowe granted an easement to allow the Superior Hiking Trail to cross his property. The Superior Hiking Trail will eventually become part of the National Scenic Trail system when it’s added to the North Country Trail.  Recently, after as he claims getting cussed out and having one of his friends who was hunting on his property get confronted by hikers, he decided to close his property to all hikers. Minnesota Public Radio quotes him as saying, “Now it’s gotten to the point where unfortunately it’s a few people who have ruined it for everybody.”

In defense of Bowe and Bissell, I can understand their concern. As a long distance hiker, I know what it felt like while attempting to the full distance of the AT, and I met many AT thru-hikers with an attitude. Many had a sense that the rules didn’t apply to them and that they were a special user group above the rule of law. I felt a little of that when I hiked, but I think I paid attention to the rules instead of showing a complete disregard. I hiked in 1996, so my memory may be a little fuzzy.

If you’re a land manager and the attitude of a vocal percentage of one user group is of the opinion that the rules don’t apply; and, if you have to put up with some users who think they should confront other allowed user groups with their personal opinions while in the outdoors instead of using the appropriate venue; and if you have to put up with users who instead of contacting the authorities if they witness someone else doing an activity that appears to break the rules they confront the people themselves and cause conflicts, then at some point you’re going to feel like you have to do something. The easiest route is to close the land to a user group.

The point here is not whether or not Bissell and Bowe are causing the problem by taking the land away; the point is that some users have a problem with the rules and are willing to break them, because they feel like they’re above those rules.

balanced rock
Balanced rocks left on the shore of Lake Superior.

This problem of feeling that the rules don’t apply extends to other user groups and public spaces. For example, Rock balancers are stacking rocks on public lands in complete disregard for the rules and leaving them balanced for other people to stumble upon in disregard to Leave No Trace principles. Leave No Trace principles are the standards that outdoors people should aspire. I recently had an online conversation with a rock balancer who wrote a book on rock balancing. He had never heard of Leave No Trace. To his credit, he is now incorporating LNT into his presentations and says that he is practicing it.

Many other rock balancers couldn’t understand the views of land managers or other users who might not like to find balanced rocks in wilderness areas and called people who didn’t want them all over public lands “dumb.” One even thought that by leaving rocks balanced that he was helping others achieve enlightenment or something like that. They almost all said they would do it regardless of the rules. This ties in with the graffiti movement and the recent move of graffiti artists into National Parks. Both are not appropriate unless allowed by land mangers. Other users have taken to removing balanced rocks and have removed path-marking cairns and historic Inuit markers. Soon, many public areas will ban and fine rock balancers unless that community gets it under control.

In the kayaking community, we’ve had a few problems with kayak campsites — most often caused by car campers that don’t want to pay to stay in a park. On Lake Superior, car campers were staying in free kayak camping spots on the Lake Superior Water Trail and not burying their crap in a cat hole (see: How to Take a Shit in the Woods [Amazon link]). A vocal local who liked to complain and who was looking for a reason to get the campsites closed worked his way through the government until he found the right manager to close the kayaking campsites because a small part of another user group was using them against the rules, and creating a public health hazard through ignorance. For the land manager, it’s easier to close the land then enforce the rules and educate the public.

This past weekend, I walked into a kayaking campsite on a road that connects it to a boat ramp, and found a car camper had taken over the campsite. His awning was over the picnic table and when combined with where he placed his truck and massive metal trailer, the beach was closed off of the public. We walked through his campsite, but had kayakers showed up, they would have had a hard time getting their boats off the beach and into the campsite. This car camper usage was against the rules. This guy had enough money to afford his expensive truck and toys, so there was no excuse to camp where he wasn’t allowed instead of camp in a park where he would have to pay a few bucks. And there are plenty of official free campsites in Cook County where I found the scene. When land managers discover this illegal use, they’ll close the campsite. The action will have the effect of punishing kayak campers who were not the problem.

At first, my knee-jerk response is land managers are taking heavy-handed approach, and their approach certainly is. But, with decreasing government budgets what are land managers to do? They don’t have the money to pay for enforcement and maintenance. Both are equally important, but when the state of a road prevents access, the road gets the money and they cut a backcountry ranger out of the budget. You see this across the board. For example, the reduced budget for the U.S. Forest Service and absolute refusal of the conservative congress to completely fund fire fighting efforts (which are increasing due to climate change) have forced the Forest Service to cut the budget in other areas, including:

Support for recreation, heritage and wilderness activities that connect the public with our natural lands and support tourism and thousands of jobs (visitors to national forests contributed more than $13 billion to America’s economy each year) has been cut by 13 percent.


While fire staffing has increased 110 percent since 1998, staffing for those dedicated to managing National Forest Service lands has decreased 35 percent over the same period.

The danger for lovers of wilderness is four-fold:

  1. Heavy-hand management will make it increasingly harder to access the wilds
  2. Budget cuts will cause a decrease in ways to access it.
  3. Declining user rates will cause fewer people to care about it.
  4. The political movement that wants to sell of public lands will take advantage of the apathy about the wilderness and anger against heavy-handed management.

The problem of losing access in our public lands is a combination of a few factors that are all reaching a breaking point:

  • The number of people disrespecting and disregarding the rules is on the rise.
  • More people who don’t understand Leave No Trace principles and who don’t have the same outdoor ethics and values of previous user groups are coming to the woods.
  • Heavy-handed park public management by managers who want the easy way out.
  • Lack of visionary leadership in public management that can overcome and solve problems creatively to the benefit of all.
  • Declining public budgets eating into the ability to enforce the rules.
campsite in the BWCA
Campsite in the BWCA. Increasingly I’ve found rock stacks throughout the BWCA.

We can solve these problems and I hope that readers of this website will think hard about solutions.

Items that we can act on immediately include deciding whether or not you will disregard and disrespect the rules when in the wilds. If you don’t like the rules, then work to change them through the proper channels instead of blatantly breaking them. Don’t break them. If you follow the rules, I commend you. I also challenge you to practice Leave No Trace if you don’t already, and teach those principles to your family and friends. Those are the actions that we have direct control over and can take action on now.

For the heavy-handed park management, even though I know it’s hard, it’s time for managers to think about change and how change can solve a problem. For example, a simple reroute of the AT through Baxter State Park could alleviate some of the concerns of the Baxter State Park Authority when it comes to user rates and rule breakers. For example, take this suggestion from “map man” at

Instead of routing the AT inside the park in the circuitous manner it is now, make a bee-line for the summit. From the park boundary, use the Blueberry Ledges Trail for half of its length, build a new mile-long connector trail from it to the Abol Campsite, then up the newly constructed Abol Trail (replacing the old Abol Slide Trail) to the summit — and I assume building new trail does not violate Gov. Baxter’s conditions since the park is already building new trail to replace Abol Slide.

NOBOs could start their last day at Abol Pines Campsite or Abol Bridge Family Campground, just outside the park, then do around four miles of non-strenuous hiking to get to Abol Campsite, inside the park, then 4.2 difficult miles up to Baxter and another difficult 4.2 miles back. Vice versa for SOBOs. This would mean a 12 to 13 mile day (compared to the present 10.2 mile day up and down the Hunt Trail) with no overnight stay required. NOBOs and SOBOs who do have their acts together could reserve space for an overnight stay at Abol Campsite, but a summit could realistically be managed without it. The special setting-aside of overnight spaces for NOBO thru-hikers (current policy at the Birches) would be eliminated. No special accommodations for thru-hikers. If park personnel don’t like vehicle traffic associated with thru-hikers, then thru-hikers can start and end their day (with 16 miles of hiking the last day) at Abol Bridge, and vehicles can use Golden Road to access it and never go inside the park. If 16 miles is too great a hardship, limited parking could be allowed at Abol Campsite for just overnight campers and approved shuttle drivers. Camping facilities near Abol Bridge would need to be beefed up, but the ATC has the money to do it if they make it a priority.

It’s a fantastic suggestion and would help fix some of the problems and eliminate any perceived “need” to break the rules. If as a park manager, you don’t put a user into a situation where he might “need” to break the rules, you’ve eliminated a future conflict. As a hiker, I would have actually preferred this option in Baxter State Park. It would have worked out much better for us as south bounders.

For public budgets, fix the problem. We have a huge user base, a growing population and more pressure on the woods in contrast with a declining budget. Those items are at odds from one another. A return to Clinton-era tax rates would go far in solving the problem. And historically, America has taxed high earners at much higher rates. I’m not saying that’s the solution, but there are plenty of options. Increasing the budget also allows for more or fully-funded backcountry ranger programs that can enforce the rules and cite users who break the rules and are currently unseen doing it instead of just celebrity users such as Jurek. When managers fail at enforcing the rules, it creates an environment where those rules are essentially meaningless. More enforcement would increase the effect of the deterrent and cut down on the number of users breaking the rules. This would allow managers to punish individual users instead of user groups.

What I do know is I’m sick of reading about more restricted access and tighter regulations and rules, but that’s what happens when parts of an user group are willing to ignore that rules because they think they shouldn’t apply. And that’s what happens when we can’t enforce the current rules because the budget doesn’t allow for it. If this problem isn’t fixed now, we’re going to see more of our public lands restricted to all users and less activities allowed on those that aren’t.


p.s. for a role model such as Scott Jurek to publicly break the rules is deplorable. He should be ashamed of himself. And, even though Jurek won the FKT record, no one was a winner in this situation. His hike should go down in the books with an asterisk behind it.

Scott Jurek’s response to Jensen Bissell: Reflections on the Appalachian Trail

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  • I always destroy rock stacks in the BWCA, but it goes way beyond that… Chairs, tables, lines for drying, wtf? I take it all down.

    And you’re right, I don’t want to come upon a rock stack or “improvement” on a 10 day October solo.

    In the beautiful to dive and snorkel abandoned mines of Crosby Ironton? People move in for the summer, with trailers… and where does the shit go? Into the clearest water in Minnesota. Owned by the state, but you’ll find many living right on the mines in the summer, with “no rules.”


    Well written, good opinion Bryan.

  • Well said! This is a tough issue, the careful balance between rules and recreation. Thanks for this post.

  • Great article! Thanks for a thoughtful analysis of where we find ourselves and how to choose a different outcome. We had a three-day BWCA trip earlier this month and had the opportunity (!) to begin teaching our four-year-old about Leave No Trace: the first hour in our campsite was spent undoing the messes left by those who came before. But it proved to be a rich discussion for the entire trip, and our tot now has an eagle eye for any bit of litter found on a portage or in a campsite. Start kids young with a good wilderness ethic and they will get it!

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