It takes a stretch of the imagination for a suburban boy growing up in the cityscape of Detroit to grasp the mountains and untamed nature of Glacier National Park. It requires setting foot inside the sylvan world of one of America’s most pristine places, witnessing the silver ridges and discovering some of the last natural backcountry in the Lower 48.
Chas Cartwright vividly remembers the first time he visited. It was the winter of 1973. With a panorama blanketed in snow, it was a good day for cross-country skiing. He was barely out of Michigan State University with a degree in anthropology and a growing love for the outdoors. Just a few years earlier he had yet to float a river or hike a mountain. But after ditching the city life, he sought work in the wild; jobs that put Cartwright “way out of my element.” He found work as a wildland firefighter, river ranger and fire lookout.
It was on this new path that Cartwright naturally ended up traveling the Going-to-the-Sun Road. He parked his car just past Glacier’s west entrance where crews had stopped plowing. He strapped on his skinny hickory skis and began tracking along the iconic portal into the centerpiece of the Crown of the Continent.
“It was just a little piece of Glacier, but what a landscape,” Cartwright said last week, reflecting back almost exactly 40 years.
As he embarked on a lifelong career of government service in the outdoors the experience from that day stuck in his mind.
“Glacier’s the park that I always wanted to be at,” he said. “I feel very blessed to have finished off my career here.”
At the end of this month, Cartwright, almost 63, will retire as superintendent of Glacier National Park after four and a half years. Kym Hall, a 26-year veteran of the National Park Service and Glacier’s deputy superintendent since October 2011, will serve as interim superintendent beginning in January until Cartwright’s successor is named.
In a conversation with the Beacon, Cartwright said he expects a new superintendent to be hired by late spring or early summer before the beginning of Glacier’s busiest season. The NPS intermountain regional director and the NPS director will facilitate the hiring process.
“I think it’s going to have a super high level of interest,” Cartwright said. “It will be a competitive process. When I applied I think there were 35 to 40 applicants. It’s a very sought-after job and seen as a very high-end assignment.”
When Cartwright took over in the spring of 2008 he became responsible for managing more than 1 million acres, a staff of roughly 130 permanent employees and 360 seasonals and a yearly operating budget of roughly $14 million. He also was handed the lengthy rehabilitation project along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, which remains ongoing.
Glacier’s next superintendent also faces several substantial issues and impending “threats” to the park, much like Cartwright did.
Aquatic invasive species are threatening to decimate the park’s natural lakes. A new “Going-to-the-Sun Road Corridor Management Plan” is about to begin in response to congestion and deleterious effects on and off some of the park’s most popular trails. Almost 20 new oil and gas drilling sites have been approved just east of the park’s boundary on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, some within one mile of Glacier. The budget continues to tighten, with a possible $200 million in immediate cuts for all NPS sites related to the so-called fiscal cliff.
What advice would Cartwright offer his successor as they prepare to enter this high-stakes environment?
Focus on relationships, he said, not only with the public but with the park’s many features and resources.
During his tenure Cartwright was known for being a roaming superintendent, frequently seen hiking trails and visiting backcountry lakes.
This was the unique way that Cartwright approached his job — understanding Glacier Park by getting out of the office and experiencing it as often as possible.
“He was the ‘muddy boots superintendent’ of Glacier Park,” said Michael Jamison, the Crown of the Continent program manager of the National Parks Conservation Association.
“Had he not been out there seeing the conflicts that the dual mandate creates, the conflicts between protecting resources and access, then he probably never would’ve embarked on something like the Sun Road study.”
Cartwright agrees that being out and about has helped shape him as superintendent and informed his decisions.
“I think until you get out on the ground you don’t have a sense of whether something is going to really work or not,” Cartwright said. “I think better decisions result from getting out in the field and building better connections with employees and visitors and bringing them into that decision-making process more directly. It’s nothing but good.”
One key decision that emerged from that first-hand knowledge is the multi-year research project beginning this spring that will address increased congestion and impacts in the heart of the park.
“I do think that the Going-to-the-Sun Road Corridor Management Plan is going to be the defining thing that gets done in the next five years, and it’s going to set the stage for the park for decades to come,” Cartwright said.
Glacier is as popular as ever. Visitation this year surpassed 2 million for the fourth time in six years. A free shuttle system was designed a few years ago to reduce vehicle traffic to Logan Pass, but has actually increased the flow of people and become costly. The shuttle system, paid by $7.50 taken from entrance fees, costs roughly $800,000 to run for eight to nine weeks, Cartwright said.
Also, the increase in visitors is having negative impacts across the park, particularly along the Highline Trail and trails near Logan Pass, Cartwright said.
The damaging effects are being seen off trail as well, he said, and human waste disposal has become a “bad issue.”
“I think it’s safe to say that we have issues. The status quo of what we’re doing now, we’ve got to do better,” he said. “How can we incrementally change how we manage that corridor and the facilities up and down that corridor so that we do a better job of serving visitors and protecting resources?”
The cost for rehabilitation work along the Sun Road has already surpassed $130 million with an estimated $40 million remaining. The construction is a major topic of conversation for businesses in the valley that depend on the flood of visitors when the main thoroughfare is open. Cartwright described pleasing the communities and finishing the road as a juggling act.
“This is a big deal. That’s a lot of time. We’ve appreciated the patience we’ve received from the communities,” he said. “On the other hand I won’t miss the question, ‘When’s the road going to open?’ I’ll now be able to say, ‘Talk to the superintendent.’”
Cartwright does not mince words when it comes to shrinking budgets, either. He understands the tough environment nationwide when it comes to federal funding, and has tried to manage the park in such a way that budget cuts would not pose an immediate danger to key aspects of Glacier.
“I wouldn’t want our success as a park to be dependent on a budget, but I think everybody knows that we’re faced with the same challenges that the public in general is faced with: ‘What do you do when you don’t have as much money?’” he said.
A noticeable change in this regard could be a new cost added to using the shuttles, an option that will be analyzed in the upcoming study, he said.
When it comes to energy development on the Blackfeet Reservation, Cartwright describes how important it is to establish healthy relationships with other agencies. After all, as he notes, the decision to drill is out of Glacier’s hands.
“The energy development question is a tough one because if you look at the heart of it, this is a decision of the Blackfeet people,” he said.
Cartwright is well aware of the threats to Glacier’s ecosystem and wildlife’s habitats.
“I’ve seen oil and gas that’s done well and I’ve seen oil and gas that hasn’t been done well,” he said. “Our sole goal in commenting on their exploration is hoping that if they do proceed to development that they do it in the most sustainable way possible.”
“We’re trying to be open and honest about what our concerns are, knowing full well that the decisions are theirs, not ours,” he added.
If there is one issue that Cartwright loses sleep over, he said it’s aquatic invasive species, like quagga and zebra mussels.
“It’s the single biggest resource threat right now,” he said.
These species are transported mainly on recreational watercrafts that are not properly cleaned. History has shown that the mussels are a major threat to waterways and can significantly damage ecosystems and natural resources.
Cartwright has implemented strict regulations forcing boaters to be checked before launching within the park. He also spread awareness and education statewide, looking at the “bigger picture” instead of worrying only about Glacier.
“The idea of quagga and zebra mussels getting into Glacier is unacceptable, and we have to act,” he said. “The more we cooperate within the state and the Department of Agriculture, and city’s parks and recreation and the highway patrol folks, the more we get to firm up the state’s program. And the more likely Glacier is going to be saved.”
In this regard, Jamison said Cartwright has been “a man before his time.”
“We don’t know it yet but someday we will look back and say if he had not taken the steps he took, we wouldn’t have Glacier Park lakes that are still free of aquatic invasives,” Jamison said.
“He really took it to heart and really knew that we’re living within a window of opportunity that is closing quickly,” he added.
Looking back on his time at Glacier and the many decisions he spearheaded, Cartwright would do one of them differently.
In 2009 he pushed for Glacier being designated as wilderness. At the time he proposed formal protection for 975,000 of the 1.013 million acres, or roughly 90 percent. This spurred a flood of backlash, which surprised Cartwright.
“I think looking back, I would have tried to do a better job of conveying why Glacier has all these special designations,” he said.
Cartwright said he was “naïve” to assume the public would be overwhelmingly on board, but he remains in support of the designation.
“You’ve got to keep the conversation going. What really is Glacier? It’s some of the finest backcountry wilderness left in the lower 48. That’s what it is, whether you designate it or not. But the value of the designation is it sets tighter constraints on how those of us who work in the park make our decisions regarding the park’s stewardship.
“Glacier’s more likely to be the place we love now and in great shape if it’s designated. No doubt in my mind.”
Even though he’s retiring, Cartwright isn’t going anywhere. He and his wife Lynda will remain at their home in Columbia Falls. In fact, Cartwright will now have more time to ski and hike throughout Glacier.
“I actually tried convincing myself to stay another year, but then I got this distinct impression that all it was doing was delaying that decision to figure out this retirement thing,” he said.
“But I’m a little tired, and I want to ratchet down and take a break in the action and figure out this next phase in my life.”
A retirement reception for Cartwright is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 13 from 3:30 to 6 p.m. at the Community Building in West Glacier. Light appetizers and refreshments will be served. For more information call Connie Stahr at 888-7901.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.