News & Features

Driving Change in Glacier National Park

With the park's famed alpine highway at max capacity, the future could bring a major shift in how visitors experience the park

In 1999, amid record visitation, Glacier National Park’s newly minted general management plan — crafted to chart the park’s course for the next 20 years — found that the overwhelming majority of people who offered input wished to “keep Glacier the way it is.”

That sentiment might not have proven useful to park administrators seeking management feedback at the time, but it captured something immutable about Glacier’s rapidly evolving visitor profile — nobody wants this place to change.

Still, change it has.

Even though vast swaths of the park’s 1-million-acre interior remain wild and untrammeled, providing visitors with a rare glimpse into the geological and ecological past, that’s not the case on the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road, which the 1999 plan described as the “premier experience for more than 80 percent of the visitors to Glacier National Park” while vowing to maintain it as such.

“The National Park Service will continue to manage the Going-to-the-Sun Road as the premier visitor experience for Glacier National Park,” the 1999 plan states. “The road will be managed as a motor nature trail. The focus will continue to be on maintaining the historic character of the road and on the experience offered by easy access to the park’s interior. Visitors will continue to have the freedom to drive personal vehicles and stop at will at various viewpoints along the road.”

Maintaining that freedom and easy access have come at a cost, while preserving the corridor’s historic integrity has presented tremendous challenges to park administrators through the years.

In 1932, when the Going-to-the-Sun Road opened, annual visitation to Glacier National Park amounted to around 53,000 people, or roughly twice the population of Kalispell today. Fast forward to last year, and more than 3 million people flocked through Glacier’s gates, amounting to more than three times the entire population of Montana, with the majority squeezing onto the narrow, two-lane highway during the peak visitation months of July and August.

The strain on infrastructure is significant, aided in part by the completion last year of a decade-long, $170 million rehabilitation of the Sun Road from Apgar to St. Mary — an expensive price that doesn’t seem so costly in light of its economic value to gateway communities.

As the only route through the park that directly links the east and west sides, the Sun Road’s value is unparalleled, with local and regional economies having grown around and become dependent on the visitation patterns it enables and promotes. According to statistics compiled by the National Park Service, average local area spending by park visitors ranges from $54 per day for local day-visitors, to $400 per day for visitors lodging outside of the park. In 2018, tourism to Glacier added $300 million to the economies of surrounding communities.

But the 1999 plan also emphasized the need to alleviate congestion at popular points along the Sun Road — lest the visitor’s experience be eroded — and recommended developing yet another plan to consider “a variety of alternatives that will maintain a high-quality, slow-paced experience for visitors in the face of increasing visitation on the road and road corridor.”

Twenty years after that sentence was written, park administrators released the plan, having spent the past decade gathering data and weighing alternatives that informed the Going-to-the-Sun Road Corridor Management Plan.

More than 160 pages in length, the management plan’s considerations included alternatives such as implementing a timed entry parking permit system, expanding the park’s shuttle system, designating one-way only travel on the popular Highline Trail, and using some or all of the campsites at the Avalanche Developed Area for excess parking when traffic congestion exceeds a specific trigger point.

All of these proposed alternatives were incorporated in what the Park Service refers to as an “adaptive management strategy,” meaning they would only be implemented when observed, real-time conditions warrant it. And if any year has underscored the importance of being able to adaptively manage to changing conditions due to uncertainty, it has been 2020 and the attendant consequences of a global pandemic.

Due to concerns surrounding the transmission of COVID-19, Glacier’s free shuttle services have been taken off line for the summer, removing a popular mode of visitor transit for the first time since 2007, when Glacier partnered with Flathead County to provide the service — an agreement that was dissolved late last year at the county’s behest. Also in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council on June 25 voted to keep roads on the park’s eastern boundary, which are on reservation land but allow access to the park, closed for the remainder of the visitor season. It marked the first time in the park’s history that the Going-to-the-Sun Road has been managed as a one-way in, one-way out vehicle access with a turnaround just east of the Continental Divide.

To alleviate the unprecedented congestion, park officials briefly considered a limited ticketed system for entry, where visitors would have had to book a reservation to access the park. Although pushback from the surrounding business community ultimately derailed the proposal, it’s the first time that one of the Sun Road Corridor Management Plan’s more extreme strategies has been trotted out publicly as a test balloon.

Although it wasn’t viable this year, it may prove applicable in the future, particularly as opposition to the creation of additional parking accommodations grows.

Gate-to-gate, the Sun Road has approximately 2,070 parking spaces, and virtually all of them were occupied by 10:30 a.m. during an audit conducted in July 2017, with some visitor-priority destination areas filling even earlier. According to simulations, 40 percent of visitor’s vehicles can’t locate a parking space at their desired destination stops during prime hours during peak season days.

The same simulations demonstrated that doubling Sun Road parking capacity to 4,140 spaces would improve parking success (visitors able to park at their desired destination on their first attempt) by only 9 percent.

However, reducing the average parking time during peak periods by 16 percent for the existing parking capacity would achieve the same 9 percent improvement.

“In other words, managing parking time is a more effective policy lever than adding parking capacity,” according to Dave Hadden, of the conservation group Headwaters Montana, which provided input on the corridor plan and opposed adding to Glacier’s inventory of parking spaces.

It remains unclear what, if any, new policy changes will accompany the visitor experience along the Sun Road next summer, or the summer after that. But at some point before Glacier’s next (and overdue) general management plan is published, some things will change.

If you enjoy stories like this one, please consider joining the Flathead Beacon Editor’s Club. For as little as $5 per month, Editor’s Club members support independent local journalism and earn a pipeline to Beacon journalists. Members also gain access to www.beaconeditorsclub.com, where they will find exclusive content like deep dives into our biggest stories and a behind-the-scenes look at our newsroom.