The Disaster Dilemma

Glacier Institute offers new course on the processes and management of natural disturbances in national parks

By Clare Menzel
Glacier Institute instructor Davey Gordon teaches students about aquatic insects at the Glacier Institute at Big Creek. Beacon File Photo

Around 4 p.m. on July 23, 2003, Glacier National Park ranger Michael J. Ober drove up Going-to-the-Sun Road for a night patrol shift. As he wrote in an account published in The Inside Trail newsletter, “apart from the relentless columns of smoke from the Wedge and Trapper fires, the evening is calm with lots of summer traffic and otherwise clear sky.”

The Wedge Canyon Fire was burning west of the North Fork, but the Trapper Creek Fire, which eventually scorched 19,150 acres in the park, grew from the upper McDonald Valley and was inching steadily over West Flattop Mountain toward the Sun Road. By the time Ober reached the Loop, a hairpin bend in the road, it became, as Ober writes, “clear that something is not right with the Trapper Fire.”

Groups of trees were exploding in flames, and heavy black clouds of smoke had gathered. Visibility quickly deteriorated. Soon, Ober received orders to shut down the Sun Road and usher any visitors down the road. That night, the fire would jump the Loop and rush uphill to Swiftcurrent Pass, prompting the evacuation of Many Glacier Valley.

Ober describes the fire as “angry and restless, brooding for some kind of noteworthy run after slowly chewing up ground fuels for days.”

Yet, as Ober certainly knew, fires don’t burn with design. They burn where the fuel and terrain is most conducive, all things equal. The fire was no more “wrong” or “right” than it had been days before, and what made that night’s run “noteworthy” was only that it bumped up against human civilization. With little change in character, the flame became a disaster.

“If there’s a massive forest fire, and no humans are affected by it, does anybody care? Is it a disaster?” Carol Medlicott, an associate professor in geography at Northern Kentucky University and the instructor of a new Glacier Institute course, “Disaster! Natural Calamities in Glacier,” asked. “What constitutes a disaster is really defined by humans. It’s the same as if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around, does it make a sound?”

Medlicott’s course, designed for the National Park Service’s centennial celebration, will highlight how humans interpret the constant disturbances in the natural world. Inspiration from the course came from a class Medlicott taught this past academic year called the “Geography of Natural Disasters.” As a geographer, Medlicott said, her job is to take a holistic perspective, combining the work of geologists, hydrologists, foresters, and other natural scientists to understand how the continual flux of earth’s many systems shapes the landscape we see.

In the Aug. 12 course, she hopes to teach her students to “read” and interpret the landscape, identifying “vestiges of natural disasters in the past” to see how fires, floods, avalanches, and other processes have shaped the terrain. Students will examine patterns of broken trees below chutes, which might indicate locations of avalanche paths, and look at successional stages of past fires, for example.

She’ll also touch on our response to natural processes and different answers to the question, “How do we inhabit an Earth that’s constantly changing?”

“There’s a fundamental conflict for human society,” Medlicott said. “We want everything stable and controllable, but the natural world is always changing. You build your house by the side of the river, and you want to know your property line is always going to be there, but the river is always going to be eroding the riverbank. As your front yard starts to deteriorate, this is a problem for you as a human. But for the river, it’s not a problem. It’s what the river does.”

In most cases, humans prefer to shut down natural processes when they threaten civilization, but managing this interface is trickier when it comes to federal lands, such as Glacier National Park, which are set aside for preservation.

“The park has multiple imperatives,” Medlicott said. “They want the natural processes to be going on, as they’re meant to. They’re tasked with preserving not the place, but the processes that make up the place. The place is not a static thing. It’s a collection of processes.”

Thus, park managers must walk the line between safeguarding the cyclical progression of natural disturbances, while making sure that human life is safe and points of cultural value, including historic structures in the park, are unharmed.

Ultimately, Medlicott aims to impress upon her students both an appreciation for the complexity of the ecosystem and the many nuances of humankind’s response to natural disasters.

“We humans are part of the complex natural ecosystem, but we’re also on the outside of it; we have this ambiguous role,” she said. “I hope to get them to appreciate the ambiguity.”

To enroll in the Aug. 12 course, which is $65, call the Glacier Institute at (406) 755-1211.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.