Climate Change, Budget Cuts and the Future of Glacier National Park

By Beacon Staff

Rising temperatures and shrinking budgets are some of the biggest challenges Glacier National Park faces, according to Superintendent Jeff Mow, who became the park’s new chief on Aug. 28. Two weeks after starting his job, Mow sat down with the Flathead Beacon for a wide-ranging interview about his experiences and the future of Glacier.

Mow, 54, first joined the National Park Service in 1988 as a seasonal ranger and was most recently superintendent at Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska. As superintendent of Glacier, Mow will oversee the management of 1 million acres of parkland, a staff of roughly 155 and an annual operating budget of $12.5 million.

BEACON: You have spent 21 of your 25 years with the National Park Service in Alaska. What experiences and talents do you bring from there to your new position at Glacier National Park?

MOW: One thing we’re seeing at the parks in Alaska is climate change, where we are at the forefront if it. While things are changing quickly in Glacier National Park because of the high altitude, it’s not changing as fast as it is in Alaska. So I think having that understanding of the dynamics of climate change and how things can change quickly is one of the perspectives I can bring to Glacier from Alaska … Glacier National Park has done a lot when it comes to climate change and it is in a leadership role in the National Park Service, so I’m still coming up to speed on their work, but I want to keep that going. I’ll also be looking at ways to work with area communities and getting our message out.

BEACON: Besides your experience with climate change, what are some other reasons why you think the park service hired you for this position?

MOW: Although I’ve spent 21 years in Alaska, I haven’t isolated myself there and have been involved with the park service on the national level, including a stint in Washington D.C. I think having that broader perspective is something they were looking for as well.

BEACON: In a recent interview you said Glacier National Park would have to do “less with less” as federal budget cuts loom on the horizon. What do you mean by that and how would you address future cuts?

MOW: I think there is a lot of uncertainty about the budget … Last year was one of the most difficult years (in the Park Service) because we were hit with the sequestration and were asked to cut 5 percent of our budget during the last few months of the fiscal year. That was a tall order. As a park manager, and with that uncertainty, you have to preserve your flexibility for anything that comes and that’s not easy… I think it’s important to look at the whole operation and figure out if these declining budgets are here to stay, how do we downsize in a way that makes sense. Over the years we’ve made many small cuts, and we may come to a point in the future where we have to be a little more strategic in what we cut … I’m not familiar with all of the details here at Glacier just yet, but I know that other parks have looked at reducing services in sections of a park, including ranger talks, ranger patrols and road maintenance.

BEACON: While in Alaska, what type of things did you cut?

MOW: We canceled some walks and even had to close the visitor center during lunch hours on the weekend because we couldn’t bring in other people. We were late opening some roads and also reduced the amount of travel and training the staff would do.

BEACON: One of the most visible projects in Glacier National Park in recent years is the improvement to the Going-to-the-Sun Road. What is the next big undertaking in the park?

MOW: Glacier has a lot of aging infrastructure and we have big work projects at the Many Glacier Hotel that we need to continue … Although it won’t be as visible as the Going-to-the-Sun Road work, as far as disrupting the public, I think there will be a big focus on how we take care of deferred maintenance at the lodges, hotels and chalets.

BEACON: At 54 years old, you’re one of the youngest superintendents at Glacier in recent years. How long do you plan on staying here and what are your ultimate goals for your time here?

In my career, I’ve learned early on to never say “oh, I’m only going to be here for a few years,” because I’ve found myself staying at a lot of places longer than I thought I would.

The park does have a general management plan for the future and I’m still digesting that. But a lot of the times, general management plans don’t anticipate big changes that can come around the corner, including climate change. We haven’t found a good way to incorporate climate change in the plan and so I’ll be looking at it with that filter… I know I was hired to look at climate change and how it will affect the park and the National Park Service as a whole in the lower 48.

BEACON: Superintendent of Glacier is a coveted position in the National Park Service. Is this a job you think you may retire from?

MOW: Retirement is not a very bright blip on my radar right now, in terms of where I am in my life; I mean I have a son in high school, so I don’t see myself retiring before he’s through college and out of the nest. But we’re not going to move again until he is at least done with high school, that’s for sure.

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