About four years after the question first arose, the National Park Service issued a final rejection last week of a BNSF Railway proposal to blast snow in Glacier National Park’s avalanche chutes above train routes, leaving the question of what steps the railroad will take instead to mitigate danger from sliding snow.
The decision denied the use of explosives for avalanche control on the park’s southern boundary except under extreme, emergency circumstances, such as the event that human lives or resources are at risk and after all other options have been exercised by the railroad, including delays.
A document of the decision was released in July and the agency’s regional director signed a record of decision in September. The record of decision may not be released to the public before notice in the Federal Register, which happened last Monday.
“I think this puts park resources above what’s most expedient for the railroad,” Will Hammerquist, Glacier Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said. “The park is a national treasure and we have a mandate to protect it so that the next generation can enjoy it – and bombing doesn’t square with that.”
The debate began in 2004, when BNSF requested that the park allow the railway company to shell several avalanche chutes in a canyon where snow had blocked the tracks for 29 hours. A series of avalanches occurred there, derailing an empty freight train and causing 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. Last year, the railroad withdrew its proposal for a permit, saying the National Park Service had overstated how much shelling would be needed for avalanche work. BNSF said it would submit a new proposal, but did not.
The Park Service decided to complete work on an environmental impact statement anyway, and concluded 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.
After the park’s draft impact statement made its way to Washington, D.C., last summer, it was held up in Washington, D.C., and the NPS regional office in Denver for longer than normal. The NPCA filed a Freedom of Information Act request for dates roughly outlining the delay, fearing that the document had been altered in its final stages.
But the FOIA request didn’t turn up “anything that was smoking gun,” Hammerquist said, and the agency’s final decision closely echoes their previous drafts.
“We wanted to make sure the process was working the way it’s supposed to work, and in this case it looks like it worked – maybe a little slowly, but the park service brought out the best result for park,” he said.
Glacier Superintendent Chas Cartwright said the decision was based on the park’s status as an internationally recognized natural area, and the wildlife and resources it contained.
“The area of the park that was the subject of this has federally listed threatened and endangered species present, is within the park’s recommended wilderness, provides winter recreation for park visitors and is important winter range for deer, elk and other ungulate species,” Cartwright said in a press release.
With blasting no longer an option, however, the question remains what steps the railroad can or will take to avoid avalanches. 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.
Railroad officials have remained mum on the issue so far. BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said last week only that the matter “was under review.”
“The question is how the rubber is going to meet the road with this,” Hammerquist said. “We’ll see if the railroad follows up on the recommendations and uses snow sheds to improve safety in the corridor.”
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