BETHEL – Changing times have forced the closure of the White Mountain National Forest’s office in Bethel.

At the end of the work day Saturday, Recreational Technician Emily Beers, the last U.S. Forest Service employee remaining in Bethel, closed and locked the door to the Evans Notch District Visitors Center.

It marked the end of an era spanning more than four decades, during which tens of thousands of people stopped at the Bethel center. It also marked the end of Beers’ Forest Service employment.

The original Evans Notch station opened in 1946 in downtown Norway, upstairs over L.M. Longley & Sons. In 1967, the office was moved to a newly built building in Bethel, and in 1988 that building was renovated and expanded.

But in 1996 the Forest Service announced a long-term plan to consolidate district offices, and the plan included merging the Evans Notch District with the larger Androscoggin District.

Over time, all of the staff who had been stationed in Bethel, except Beers, were transferred to the Androscoggin District office in nearby Gorham, N.H.

And as the consolidation unfolded, the relatively low number of visitors to the Bethel center played a large role in the Forest Service’s decision.

Last year, for example, Bethel, which was open just two days a week, had 1,658 in-person visits, while the Androscoggin Station had 9,287, the Saco Station in Conway, 45,568, and the Gateway center in Lincoln, N.H., 27,731.

And a fair number of the visitors here, Beers said, were eastbound on Route 2, and at their first stop in Maine they wanted information about the coastline that lay ahead, not the National Forest they had just left behind.

Dave Neely, the WMNF assistant ranger for recreation, said the center here stayed open as long as it did in part because the Forest Service “was basically trying to keep our options open as far as management of National Forest domain in Maine.”

And, Beers added, because many Maine political figures strongly supported a continued Forest Service presence in Maine.

But tough economic times appear to have brought on the inevitable.

The visitor numbers, Neely said, “are some of the data we looked at when we made a decision about whether it was prudent use of taxpayer money to be paying a salary to staff the visitor center when we weren’t able to pay salary for people to cut trails, maintain campgrounds or do that other work. That’s a lot of what informed that discussion.”

Sale an option

It is uncertain what will happen to the Forest Service property, which includes the building and its 10-acre lot.

It may end up being sold, but that decision has not yet been made, Neely said, and the Forest Service has a tenant (or “permitee”) still in the building, the Mahoosuc Land Trust.

“Certainly we have no interest – especially in this economic climate – of taking any actions that are going to make it any more difficult for a permitee to remain viable,” he said.

But eventual sale remains an option, Neely said, “And I would assume that (the property) would prove fairly desirable.”

“From my personal perspective, it’s a fantastic piece of land,” he said, “a parcel that size that’s heavily wooded, near the center of town.”

Neely conceded the property does have one serious drawback, at least in the eyes of some beholders – safety.

“I’ve long heard people express concerns about the location of the driveway and sight distances,” he said.

“That seems to be the conventional wisdom in Bethel – that it’s not the greatest location for getting into and out of the site.”

Robin Zinchuk, executive director of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce, said the Forest Service approached the chamber “about moving over there but our board felt, at the time we were formally asked, that the location and the tight curb cuts were not conducive to safe visitor vehicular access.”

And she noted: “When the Maine Tourism Association had a location there, the walk-in numbers might have increased a little, but even they could not justify the expense to be there.”

And the nearby, more conveniently located chamber office, she said, already provides the kind of information visitors to the area typically seek.

“The chamber has already been distributing the WMNF hiking maps, camping information and various other handouts. They are some of our more popular summer/fall takeaways,” Zinchuk said.

“It is my hope to continue to have conversations with the WMNF to see if they have any willingness to talk about collaboration in the future.”

Beers, asked about her own future, was philosophical.

“Every day is a new day,” she said. “Life is an adventure.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.