As the need to slow the spread of coronavirus gains urgency in Montana, Gov. Steve Bullock has requested the immediate, temporary closure of Glacier National Park.
The governor made the request in a letter to Glacier Park Superintendent Jeff Mow on March 24, the same day that Department of Interior officials announced closures to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national park units for public-health reasons and to reduce strain on local resources and gateway communities.
“While our public lands afford many Americans with an opportunity to embrace the health benefits connected to the outdoors during the unprecedented challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, already early season visitation to Glacier National Park is promoting unnecessary travel that both undermines our efforts to reduce exposures and exacerbates risks for all Montanans,” Bullock wrote in the letter. “Visitors are not only concentrating in the Park but are also straining local grocery and other facilities at a time when local officials are attempting to curtail gatherings and meet the need for essential services.”
In Whitefish, whose tourism-based economy is largely dependent on visitation to Glacier National Park, Mayor John Muhlfeld minced no words in articulating his support for a temporary closure.
“As a gateway community to Glacier National Park, I guarantee you the majority of visitors choose to spend at least a portion of their vacation in Whitefish, and right now we are overwhelmed,” Muhlfeld said. “Our emergency services are strapped, our bars and restaurants are closed, and we don’t need additional visitors taxing our infrastructure right now. We would prefer that the park be closed temporarily to visitors because it directly impacts us.”
On March 19, Muhlfeld used his executive authority to declare a state of emergency in Whitefish in an effort to commit all available resources toward preventing the spread of COVID-19. The city asked potential visitors to Whitefish to delay any trips and to reschedule their visits in the coming months, assuming the risks to the community have passed.
The declaration also grants the city manager authority to control ingress and egress to all or part of the city, which Muhlfeld said would happen without hesitation if visitation rises.
Bullock’s request to Glacier Park comes less than a week after Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt announced the National Park Service was suspending all entrance fees until further notice, a step he said at the time “makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors.”
Indeed, Montanans have been retreating to open spaces and public lands in droves since the coronavirus pandemic marooned schools, businesses, community events and social gatherings, particularly as outdoor activities serve as a last bastion for anyone forced to work from home and ordered to social distance or isolate.
But the uptick in outdoor-related activities has created concerns that allowing — never mind encouraging, as Bernhardt’s directive does — visitors and tourism to national parks sends mixed messages.
With many national parks located in the most isolated and least medically equipped areas of the country, an uptick in visitation will only add to the strain on an already overburdened health care system, advocates of temporary closures say, as well as a greater workload for emergency services personnel and first responders in gateway communities.
Heeding those concerns, national parks from Yellowstone and Grand Teton in Wyoming and Montana to Yosemite in California and Rocky Mountain in Colorado announced complete closures, while other units implemented restrictions affecting nearly all of the 419 parks and National Park Service sites across the nation.
“The National Park Service listened to the concerns from our local partners and, based on current health guidance, temporarily closed the parks,” said Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly and Grand Teton Acting Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail in a joint statement. “We are committed to continued close coordination with our state and local partners as we progress through this closure period and are prepared when the timing is right to reopen as quickly and safely as possible.”
While Glacier National Park is not as busy as Yellowstone, which is the National Park Service’s sixth-most popular unit and drew 4 million visitors last year — compared to Glacier’s 3 million — and even though most of its visitation occurs in July and August, after its famed Going-to-the-Sun Road has opened, approximately 18,000 visitors came to Glacier in February alone, a 60 percent increase over the same month last year.
“Accordingly, I am requesting that you implement appropriate measures to dissuade visitation through temporary closures, outreach and communications efforts and other means,” Bullock wrote in his letter to Mow. “Thank you for your support as we work together to respond to the challenges of this health crisis.”
Although Mow was not immediately available for comment on Bullock’s request to temporarily close Glacier, nonprofit partners of the National Park Service voiced support for the temporary closures of its other units.
“The National Parks Conservation Association supports the Park Service’s decision to temporarily close Yellowstone and Grand Teton,” stated Betsy Buffington, Northern Rockies Regional Director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “This announcement comes in response to concerns about extremely limited capacity of local health care facilities raised by health departments and elected officials in Montana and Wyoming.”
According to Bullock’s office, the Interior Department signed off on the closures at Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks after Superintendent Sholly coordinated with state and local governments in both Montana and Wyoming.
“We support the process for evaluating these decisions and appreciate Superintendent Mow’s coordination with the state and local governments,” a spokesperson for Bullock said.
Jayson O’Neill, director of the nonprofit Western Values Project, said the onus should not be on individual park units and their gateway communities to spearhead closures, but on Interior leadership.
“Guidance, leadership, and consistency are all part of the job Americans expect from their officials in times of crisis. President Trump and Secretary Bernhardt are failing to provide leadership and have remained silent after their careless gimmick forced medical professionals and local and state officials to plead with park officials to take corrective action in order to protect public health,” O’Neill stated. “Calling for national park closures and triaging the chaos and confusion this stunt caused is not what medical professionals should be dealing with during this crisis.”