As park officials described it, with both optimism and concern, preserving and protecting the Crown of the Continent is a constant effort.
Aquatic invasive species continue to threaten Glacier National Park. Federal funding is drying up nationwide while lawmakers grapple over a transportation bill. As the top attraction in the state, the park’s escalating popularity is beginning to overwhelm resources and trails.
“What does this mean for the future of Glacier National Park?” Deputy Superintendent Kym Hall asked recently. “How do we maintain that quality visitor experience? Because I assume that’s what people come here for. It’s the Glacier experience, and it’s a unique experience.”
Hall and Superintendent Chas Cartwright, joined by other park officials, held two community meetings last week where they laid out the present status of the 102-year-old park. Business leaders and residents from across the valley listened intently and asked questions, a reflection of Glacier’s influence. Tucked into Northwest Montana and hugging the Flathead Valley, Glacier Park is worth more than its amenities. Recent research out of Montana State University shows national parks have become population magnets. The density of people around Glacier rose 210 percent between 1946-2000.
In 2010, the park’s centennial, more than 2.2 million visitors spent about $109 million in the valley, according to a report from the National Park Service. Non-local visitors – those who live outside of the 60-mile radius – contributed about $104.7 million. This money supported 1,632 jobs, according to the report.
Most visitors arrive while the Going-to-the-Sun Road is open, as demonstrated last year. The park’s main road was only open from July 13 to Oct. 19, on the east side, due to heavy snowpack in the winter and spring, the latest opening and shortest period of time everything was accessible in park history. The final visitation numbers for 2011 were the fourth lowest in a decade.
Hall answered the “million dollar question” recently, saying the Going-to-the-Sun Road is on pace to open as planned on June 15. Barring any setbacks, plow crews on both the west and east sides are expected to reach Logan Pass by May 25, she said.
Cartwright said the complete rehabilitation of the iconic thoroughfare, which began five years ago, could be finished in time for the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in 2016.
Over $110 million has been spent rebuilding sections of the 80-year-old National Historic Landmark, Cartwright said. Another $30 million to $35 million is still needed to complete several stretches on the park’s west side, including 19.9 miles from West Glacier to Logan Pit; two miles between Haystack Creek and the Big Bend; and 10 miles from Siyeh Bend to St. Mary. There won’t be any construction on the east side this year.
This fall could be the final time access to Logan Pass is cut off early because of construction, Cartwright said.
Though rebuilding the narrow winding road through the heart of Glacier is particularly challenging, securing federal funding has also become burdensome.
There could be a shortfall for reconstruction funding depending on what transpires with the transportation bill, officials say, but the plan is to finish priority stretches first and bump secondary work until financial support arrives.
“Money is getting tougher to come by but this still appears to be a high priority for the National Park Service and the federal highway folks,” Cartwright said. “We’re really optimistic and we’re proceeding as if it is happening.”
Cartwright emphasized the importance of private fundraising as “key” to preserving Glacier’s vitality. He said a consolidation is currently in the process between local fundraising entities to unite resources.
There’s one issue in particular that “makes me lose sleep at night,” Cartwright said, and it’s aquatic invasive species.
“It’s a game-changing threat that is at our doorstep,” he said.
Nonnative species, such as quagga mussels, can attach to boats in other bodies of water and damage new ecosystems. Cartwright used Lake Mead in Arizona as an example of a horror story. Within a few years of mussels being incidentally introduced, “Lake Mead is gone,” Cartwright said.
“You cannot control these things,” he added. “Once they get into a system there’s no stopping them. It’s a scary story.”
Cartwright said several dozen boats have already been found contaminated with invasive species across the state. At Glacier, every boat is now being inspected at the park entrance, even non-motorized ones such as canoes. Cartwright emphasized the importance of spreading awareness throughout the communities as imperative to protecting Glacier’s fisheries.
“We’ve got to keep these things out of this world-renowned system,” he said, adding, “Glacier deserves our best efforts.”
Last year’s drop in attendance provided a respite to resources within the park. The shuttle system that was designed to relieve road and parking congestion has instead increased the number of visitors along stops within the main corridor of the park. Logan Pass is now filled with more people who don’t have to worry about finding one of the limited parking spots. Popular trails, like the hike to Avalanche Lake, are being trampled more than ever, officials say.
“We’re still seeing a lot of congestion in a lot of areas,” Hall said.
The high number of visitors is good for tourism, but “what we have is a set of trails and meadows and facilities designed for a much lower amount of people,” Hall said. “We’re getting maxed out.”
Since 2004, Glacier has drawn an average of 1.98 million visitors a year. Limited funding is stifling additional shuttle services that are struggling to keep up with peak-season demands.
Hall said the park is beginning a study that will look at how growth should be managed and how higher visitation is impacting resources. Researchers at the University of Montana will conduct the study and begin by surveying visitors.
“How do we manage the park?” Hall asked. “How do we handle numbers we have not seen in the past? There is a limit sometimes for what these resources can withstand before they start to degrade and so does the experience.”
“We don’t know where we’re headed with this,” she added. “We don’t know how to solve this. We need your help.”
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