Back to Basics, Please

By Beacon Staff

Like everyone else, I’m glad the Going-to-the-Sun Highway is open and the years of reconstruction are almost over. The crews should be proud of their work.

My Dad and I took a spin over Logan Pass a couple of weeks ago, and will punch his Golden Age pass a few more times this year if the weather is right. Being able to do that is one of the nicer aspects of being Montanan – an amenity, so to speak, something to do when we’ve dealt with basics like making a living.

A couple of things on our drive got me thinking:

First, each trip up Logan Pass is a reminder that the Going-to-the-Sun Road democratized Glacier National Park, making it accessible to average Americans.

Prior to the road’s opening in 1933 (only three years after U.S. 2 was finished), if you wanted to visit Glacier, you rode in on Great Northern Railway’s limiteds (likely Pullman), stayed and ate in the Great Northern’s various hotels, chalets, or tent camps, and rode the horses of a Great Northern sub-contractor.

That sort of North American safari experience was reserved for those with not only plenty of leisure time, but cash, too. In short, before the Sun Road was built, Glacier was for the elite, plus a few Montana locals with a string of horses or enough cash to take the flivver on a joy ride now and then.

While some make much ado about the Park being 96 percent-plus managed as wilderness, the huge majority of Glacier’s visitors come when the Sun Highway is open. There’s a reason why we enjoyed 490,000 park visitors for the first half of 2012, 14 percent more than in 2011: The highway opened June 18 this year. Last year Logan Pass wasn’t open until July 13 – and gas was more hurtfully expensive.

And while our mini-boom in visitation is great, let’s remember that “boom” was partly caused by our recession. Plenty of folks who would normally jet off to Belize instead gassed the car to See America First – and at 25 bucks a carload for a week, Glacier Park is a cheap date – even at four bucks a gallon, even if you can’t find a campsite.

Second, it had been a long time, at least 2001, since I’d been to Saint Mary. My eyes were drawn to the massive 2003 burn as we made our way past the lake, headed for Many Glacier to ogle the remodeling at the hotel. Nice!

We then decided to go over Looking Glass to check out the new Two Medicine bridge. Wow, what a jolt when we realized the “logging road” we thought we saw from the park was actually Highway 89.

As we climbed south past Divide Mountain, I’ll admit the epic destruction improved the view toward the park. The brush seems green enough. But the thick forest that used to be is today nothing but wind-blasted gray sticks. I suspect in another five years, it will all be a jackstraw jungle as the roots rot off.

Such a thing is OK in the Park, but not on the reservation. Those were Blackfeet tribal trees, which someday would have provided jobs and revenue for the tribe and its members.

So, I got to thinking a little. Pardon me for saying so, but I get a sense of misplaced priorities when I hear of Park Service opposition to Canadians logging, or digging coal, or Americans possibly drilling for gas in the North Fork.

And now, as the Beacon has reported, the Park Service saw fit to comment about oil leasing on the Blackfeet reservation – over possible impacts to scenic vistas from inside the park? I guess I am just uncomfortable when taking care of amenities takes precedence over the basics.

I’m all for letting the Park be a prosperous and happy Park. But I think the Park should leave the Blackfeet to decide among themselves how they’ll become prosperous and happy.