Superintendent Discusses Future Challenges for Glacier National Park

By Beacon Staff

As the superintendent of Glacier National Park, Chas Cartwright has his eyes on the future, as well as the challenges it could hold for conservation and construction in the Crown of the Continent.

Cartwright spoke on Feb. 23 at an event hosted by the Glacier National Park Fund at Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish, discussing the major issues the park currently faces and how he envisions those issues playing out.

At the forefront of Cartwright’s remarks was the transboundary agreement with British Columbia, in which both sides of the Montana-B.C. border agreed to prohibit oil and gas drilling and mining in the Flathead Valley.

British Columbia’s pledge is historic, Cartwright said.

“This is the most substantial decision that’s been made to protect a piece of land that I have ever seen,” he said, adding later, “It takes a whole lot of guts.”

The Canadian federal government provided the money to compensate the companies with claims in the region, Cartwright said, but the U.S. side is depending on the Nature Conservancy for the money.

With a $5 million goal, the group is roughly two-thirds of the way there, he said, and hopes to reach it later this year.

“Now is the time to reflect on what we do on this side of the border,” Cartwright said.

Aquatic invasive species, such as zebra mussels, are one of the biggest threats to preserving Glacier Park’s pristine waterways, Cartwright said. The public needs to be aware of the threat and the importance of properly cleaning watercraft to prevent infection, he said.

“We all have a stake in this,” he said. “This is a critical question for those of us who are lucky enough to live in this part of the country: what are we going to do?”

When the discussion moved to the future of the biggest construction project in Glacier Park – the rehabilitation of the Going-to-the-Sun Road – Cartwright had a clearer picture to offer.

The entire road should be fixed by 2016, he said, with the completion of high-altitude sections expected by the end of this year. Cartwright acknowledged the difficulty in working on the road during the summer tourism season and squeezing in more construction before the snow flies, but he is satisfied with the results so far.

“It’s been tough, but we have a lot to show for it,” he said.

The 10-year project is a major investment in the park, he said, with the entire project’s cost surpassing $110 million this year and plenty of more work to do.

And while the park does not have all the money lined up for the project through 2016, there is enough for the next two years, Cartwright said.

The major construction project is also an opportunity to perform a Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor management plan, Cartwright said, which would guide the park in determining what kind of visitor experience is expected on the road and what kind of protection should be put in place in the future.

Cartwright said he expects to announce within the next couple of months that the park has secured the money for a corridor management plan as part of fiscal year 2013.

Such a plan could help determine what the public would like to see with parking congestion in places like the Avalanche Lake trailhead, he said. The new transit system, which the park initiated last summer to mitigate traffic during construction, will be part of those plans, he said.

The future of the transit system is cloudy, because the park would need funds to maintain the buses. So far, the buses run on an $800,000 budget taken from entrance fees and Cartwright estimated that they only took 1 or 2 percent of the vehicles off the road.

Fee money is increasingly important for the park with recent cuts in federal dollars, Cartwright said, as are funds from private groups such as the Glacier National Park Fund.

An audience member brought up noise pollution in the park created by helicopters and motorcycles, which Cartwright said is the “most complained about issue in the park.”

While little can be done in the foreseeable future about helicopters, there could be a solution for motorcycles if the National Park Service were to adopt a decibel-level standard, Cartwright said.