Some of the public’s business stays under the radar, even when it is important or has implications for many. For example, Baxter State Park, probably Maine’s most precious and protected natural treasure, has been without a permanent director since the sudden departure of its former leader, Eben Sypitkowski, back in February of this year. He served about three years.
The outgoing park director had taken over from Jensen Bissell in 2019, who served about 15 years. Sypitkowski’s was an abbreviated tenure given the history of Baxter State Park directors. Early park leaders, the legendary Helon Taylor and Buzz Caverly, both dedicated most of their working lives to the park, either as rangers or directors. Sypitkowski never said why he was leaving, but reading between the lines of an exit interview he gave the press it sounded like the job simply overwhelmed him. One park devotee and critic said that Sypitkowski was more or less a non-visionary, “a caretaker director” who rarely had a public or media presence.
So where do we go from here, leadership-wise, at Baxter State Park? The acting or interim director is former Chief Ranger Dan Renard. The Baxter Park Authority, which calls the shots, will decide who replaces the outgoing director. In keeping with Governor Baxter’s Deeds of Trust, the authority is comprised of the Fish and Wildlife commissioner, the state attorney general and the Forestry commissioner. The current authority chairman is Patty Cormier, the Forestry commissioner.
Although a national search was conducted this spring to attract a replacement director, Cormier said that they received some qualified applicants, but none of them were “the right fit.” Citing a state confidentiality statute, Maine Human Resources Director Amanda Beckwith would not divulge how many applicants were received, nor would she say how many were residents and nonresidents.
Cormier said, “We are not, at this point, posting the position because we are working hard to improve some systems, such as reservations and accounting, as well as looking to fill the SFMA position before we hire a new director.”
This raises a question: Why weren’t some of these critical upgrades accomplished during Sypitkowski’s watch? Perhaps this explains his exit after only three years at the post. In Maine, reporter Phyllis Austin’s wonderful book “Wilderness Partners, Buzz Caverly and Baxter State Park,” the sheer magnitude of the director’s responsibilities comes through loud and clear. Austin writes, “Buzz faced strong special interests, legal mandates, financial limits, conflicting user demands, politically driven authorities, independent employees, scrutiny by the media, power plays by lawmakers and his own unrelenting imperative to live up to Baxter’s trust.”
No doubt changing times make the Baxter leadership post even tougher than it was in Caverly’s era. Buzz concedes this today and believes strongly that the next park director should be an individual with Maine roots, and a lot of previous experience with Baxter Park specifically. In his last days as park director, Caverly butted a lot of heads, and his forced departure was bittersweet. But the man and his contribution to the park was profound and legend-worthy. His advice on contemporary leadership selection for the park just might warrant some serious consideration by the authority. Former park trustee Bill Vail said of Caverly “that he had never met anyone like Buzz, especially in public service, who focused so narrowly on an ideal — a mission. He was skilled at moving that great ship. We probably won’t see that again.”
The authority has a big challenge in finding “the right fit.” And it obviously is keenly aware of this. All bets are off, but if past is prologue in park history, Chief Ranger Dan Renard, the acting park director, will, as time goes by, be more and more likely to get the top job.
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. His email address is [email protected]