Glacier Park’s Prominent Role in Global Conservation

The national park, which is part of the world’s first international peace park, is poised to play a greater role in bringing nations together while providing vital research about climate change

By Dillon Tabish

In 1932, while European countries simmered on the brink of war, the U.S. and Canada reached an unprecedented agreement in the name of peace and goodwill.

The two neighboring nations banded together to create the world’s first international peace park in the towering Rockies of Northwest Montana and southern Alberta.

Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park encompasses a combined 1,720 square miles of Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park. As stated in the original legislation authorized by both the U.S. and Canadian governments, the goal was to form “an enduring monument of nature to the long-existing relationship of peace and goodwill” between the two countries.

In his bill spearheading the site’s creation, Montana Congressman Scott Leavitt said the park would be an inspiring model for all nations, friendly or not.

“(Waterton-Glacier) has about it something indescribable,” Leavitt wrote in his bill. “Perhaps the imminent presence which broods over it and which is universally felt may best be described as peace.”

Indeed, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park has stood out as a global symbol over the last century, leading other nations to adopt their own world heritage sites while maintaining an enduring legacy of transboundary conservation.

“Glacier really does have an international reputation,” said Jeff Mow, superintendent of Glacier National Park. “The 1932 designation creating the world’s first international peace park still resonates on that global scale.”

Today Glacier Park is poised to play a greater role in bringing nations together.

The National Park Service and other organizations are exploring potential ways to enhance Glacier-Waterton’s status on the global stage as a gathering place for international conferences or workshops.

Mow said people interested in hosting prominent diplomatic events at Glacier have approached him, and the NPS has identified the newly acquired Wheeler property on the north end of Lake McDonald as a possible venue with the capacity and integrity to host such events.

Mow shared this news to a crowd of over 50 people last week during a presentation on the significant part that Glacier plays in the world of conservation, from its stature as the first international peace park to its prominent role in developing a strategy for adapting to global-scale environmental changes.

Mow and Dan Fagre, a research ecologist for the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center in Glacier Park, both led discussions at the recent World Parks Congress, a global gathering held every 10 years to focus attention on the planet’s protected places.

Both men shared insight from their experience during a free presentation Jan. 21 hosted by the Crown of the Continent Learning Center at Glacier Park.

Last fall an estimated 6,000 people, including world leaders, scientists, biologists and conservationists from 160 countries, converged on Sydney, Australia for the latest high-profile event.

The U.S. delegation featured a rather exclusive group of people from NASA, NOAA, the USGS and the National Park Service, as well as U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell. Mow was one of only three national park superintendents and only 12 NPS staff members to attend.

“It was my first opportunity in my 27-year career with the NPS to engage at a much broader level with that international community of conservation,” he said. “The opportunity to network and learn from others was really quite profound.”

The overall event was focused on the ways parks and people are addressing the challenges facing the planet while conserving nature and benefitting human health and prosperity. Nelson Mandela’s great-grandson, Hlanganani Mandela, was the keynote speaker, and he echoed the words of his renowned great-grandfather, “Education is the most powerful weapon for changing the world.”

While attending several discussions throughout the week, Mow and Fagre both led workshops and presentations about climate change and how the National Park Service is at the forefront of monitoring and preparing for widespread ramifications.

In light of climate change, the NPS is developing a new widespread strategy for addressing and responding to increasing environmental changes. Mow said the agency is adopting “scenario planning” as a model for facing issues of uncertainty. Through this model, the agency hopes to prepare for the unexpected and form solutions for dramatic changes. Similar to how a business plans for various outcomes, the agency is identifying various scenarios that could take place across the landscape and then forming adaptive strategies for responding, Mow said.

“The NPS is figuring it out from scratch,” Mow said.

Mow has had first-hand experience dealing with this before, serving as superintendent at Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska before taking the Glacier Post.

“Climate change is more in your face in Alaska,” he said.

Fagre, one of the foremost scientists studying climate change, has kept a close eye on the transformations taking place in Glacier Park, where less than 10 square miles of glacial ice remains and the lasting features are expected to disappear completely in under 20 years.

Scientists such as Fagre have a sizeable amount of research to look back on, similar to other national park sites. The agency will be able to develop comprehensive strategies because of this breadth of research, he said. The U.S. is home to several large-scale mountain parks, including Glacier Park, which was established on an “open canvas” in the American west away from long-standing developed civilizations, Fagre noted. Other places, such as Europe, have developed protected parks in places where large civilizations have lived for centuries, eliminating the ability to study truly natural habitats.

“The landscape has been so intensely used for so long, it makes for a completely different natural-cultural interface,” Fagre said. “They don’t know what their natural legacy is.”

In contrast, in the U.S., “We’ve got a lot of information about our parks,” he said. “We have that before-and-after information that can quantify facts.”