Blackfeet Tribe Closes Eastern Border to Glacier Park

Citing spike in COVID-19 cases, Blackfeet Tribal Business Council prohibits travel at eastern entrances for remainder of 2020 tourism season

By Tristan Scott
Visitors walk along the shore of Swiftcurrent Lake in Glacier National Park. Beacon File Photo

Citing the state’s recent surge in new cases of COVID-19, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council voted Thursday to prohibit travel from Glacier National Park’s eastern edge into the reservation for the remainder of the 2020 tourism season.

In passing the ordinance, tribal leaders have closed popular access roads at Two Medicine, Chief Mountain, St. Mary’s, Cut Bank Creek, and Many Glacier.

“Based on the spike in COVID-19 cases in Montana and the health and safety risk to the residents of the Blackfeet Reservation … the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council hereby desires to close the eastern border of Glacier National Park for the protection of the residents of the Blackfeet Reservation for the rest of the 2020 tourism season,” according to the tribal ordinance.

The decision comes as Glacier National Park adjusts to a partial reopening that began June 8 at the park’s west entrance, where a phased approach that officials dubbed “Adaptive Operational Recovery” has allowed visitors to gradually begin percolating into isolated segments of the park.

The park has since opened access at the Polebridge Ranger Station up the North Fork, though congestion has forced frequent closures there.

Meanwhile, the Going-to-the-Sun Road remains closed to motorized use beyond Avalanche Creek, and officials said they will not open the alpine thoroughfare to Logan Pass before the July 4 holiday, saying that plowing, guardrail installation and other roadwork still isn’t complete.

In late March, the park closed to visitors until further notice as cases of COVID-19 crept steadily upward in Montana, where state, county and tribal governments responded by introducing measures to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Although the June 8 partial reopening of Glacier National Park has been widely cheered, particularly by gateway businesses and communities whose economies depend on proximity and access to Glacier, it has forced park administrators to venture into uncharted territory as they navigate competing needs and jurisdictions and weigh the risks to the public.

For members of the Blackfeet Nation, those risks are underscored by the reservation’s proximity to Glacier Park, which draws millions of visitors each year, hundreds of thousands of whom access the park by crossing tribal lands. The potential for tourism to exacerbate the public-health crisis during the pandemic isn’t lost on park administrators or the gateway communities whose economic vitality is linked to seasonal visitation.

“We are 100 percent committed to coordinating with the tribe on how to respond to and manage this situation,” Glacier Park Superintendent Jeff Mow told the Beacon in May. “COVID-19 is a serious threat for the Blackfeet as far as having the potential to impact their culture, which places such high value on elders. We recognize the need to be sensitive to that, and so do our partners.”

A resurgence of the virus, either through out-of-state travel or the relaxation of other restrictions on and around the reservation, could have a disproportionate impact on members of the Blackfeet, as evidenced on reservations in other parts of the country.

Still, the new tribal ordinance will be met with disappointment by some business sectors, particularly in gateway communities, while the operators of lodges along the park’s eastern boundary will chafe under the constraints.

Glacier Park Collection, the company that operates Glacier Park Lodge and other services on tribal lands, says it won’t open until federal, tribal and state officials deem it safe to do so, but had been preparing for Blackfeet leaders to relax restrictions on July 1.

Instead, amid a record-setting wave of new COVID-19 cases in Montana — a trend that is mirrored in other parts of the country — the Blackfeet enacted the more aggressive closure.

This story will be updated.

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