Conservation Group Probes Avalanche Prevention Plan

By Beacon Staff

A conservation group has filed a request for documents relating to the release of an upcoming decision by Glacier National Park regarding avalanche control on the railroad tracks that skirt the park’s southern border, out of concern that Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway executives may have influenced the decision after the public comment period had closed.

Will Hammerquist, Glacier Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, sent a request dated April 9 under the Freedom of Information Act to the National Park Service for any documents or correspondence between government officials and BNSF executives from January 2007 through April 11, 2008 related to the railway company’s request to bomb avalanche chutes in John Stevens Canyon. Those dates roughly outline a period when the Draft Environmental Impact Statement detailing Glacier Park’s decision on avalanche control along the rail line was held up in Washington, D.C., and the NPS regional office in Denver for longer than normal.

“We’re just worried, that in the closing days of the Bush administration, that people may be tinkering with it,” said John Wilson, NPCA’s associate regional director for the Northern Rockies. “We think it’s good business on behalf of the parks to illuminate the situation.”

The FOIA request marks the latest turn in a debate that began in 2004, when BNSF requested that the park allow the railway company to shell several avalanche chutes in the canyon that toppled a train and caused financial losses while the route was snowed in. The park initiated an environmental impact process that received more than 13,000 public comments, including BNSF’s, and concluded late in 2006 that the preferred alternative was for BNSF to build avalanche sheds along about a mile of the route’s most avalanche-prone section. While more expensive, the park said, building avalanche sheds was safer for railway employees and would cause less environmental harm than launching mortars into the park.

The park can only make decisions about what happens within its borders, so while it can prevent shelling on parkland, it can’t compel BNSF to build avalanche sheds above its railroad tracks; the park can only make a recommendation. In January of 2007, BNSF withdrew its proposal, saying in a letter that it believed the park had overestimated the amount of shelling the rail company would need to do for avalanche mitigation. While BNSF’s letter said it would submit a new proposal, it never did.

After the park’s draft impact statement made its way to Washington, D.C., last summer, it was held up just prior to a notice going into the Federal Register that would have allowed the decision to be finalized 30 days later. Under a review process new to the Bush administration, Interior Department and NPS officials review the document at this stage, and it is here that it stalled for most of the 15 months that the NPCA made its request for related documents.

Jeffrey Olson, NPS spokesman in Washington, D.C., declined to say whether BNSF executives had met with government officials, adding that the decision took a long time because of the high visibility of the issue and significance of Glacier Park. Karen Breslin, a spokeswoman for the NPS Intermountain Regional Office in Denver, said regional director Mike Snyder met with BNSF executives in March to “discuss potential, minor changes.”

BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas would not comment on meetings between NPS and Interior officials and railway executives, but said BNSF carried record volumes of freight along the route in question this winter and there were no significant avalanches.

As for the decision document, it is now back in Glacier Park, where it is undergoing minor changes before being sent again to Washington, D.C., for final approval, according to Mary Riddle, Glacier’s environmental protection and compliance specialist. Riddle said that whatever caused the delay in the process, it “hasn’t resulted in any substantial changes in the document.” The park still recommends BNSF construct snowsheds, and the railway must apply for a permit to use explosives in an avalanche situation where human lives were at risk, or hazardous materials could potentially spill, Riddle said.

She hopes to have a document before the public in June. At that time, Hammerquist and other NPCA officials will determine if any changes to the park’s decision really are “minor.” And if the park’s decision has changed significantly, he hopes the documents he has requested can provide an explanation.