On the heels of 2020, one might expect the view of summer in Northwest Montana to be free of hazards, especially when compared to the unexpected pitfalls that tourism-dependent businesses in Glacier National Park’s gateway communities encountered over the past year.
But in conversations this past week with about 150 business stakeholders flanking Glacier — the region’s epicenter of summer tourism — park administrators offered a more realistic picture, warning of the challenges that lie ahead as they prepare to navigate a season that will continue to be overlaid with the consequences of COVID-19, on top of the congestion issues associated with increasing visitor use and other scheduled projects, such as summer road construction, that could disrupt the flow of visitors in and out of the park.
“If you’re anticipating a return to normalcy, it’s not looking like that will happen, at least not at the start of the summer,” Glacier Park Superintendent Jeff Mow told attendees of a Jan. 29 virtual meeting. “COVID is not cooperating, and that will influence how and when visitors arrive, as well as how we are able to do business.”
One of the most immediate challenges stemming from the pandemic is how the park accommodates its seasonal employees, who must be housed individually instead of in dorm-like settings, constricting the park’s ability to provide room and board for its normal volume of workers arriving from across the country.
Preparations for Glacier’s busy summer season are laid in January and February, when the park begins assembling a seasonal workforce of roughly 300 employees. COVID-19 disrupted the hiring process last year, resulting in fewer services, and Mow said a similar scenario would play out his summer.
“We’re about 60 beds short on the west side in terms of the number of seasonal employees that we would normally be able to accommodate, and that will cause a shortage of services,” Mow said.
That doesn’t include the 1,200-plus workers from around the world who private concessionaires like Xanterra Parks and Resorts and Glacier Park Collection by Pursuit hire to staff restaurants and gift shops. This year, however, they’ll be arriving in the midst of a mass-inoculation campaign already struggling to meet demand. And while local health officials acknowledged the need to vaccinate the Flathead Valley’s transient work force, the majority of whom will have already arrived by the time they’re slotted for a shot through the state’s tiered allocation system, it presents logistical problems — even if those workers were classified in Tier 1C, it could be well into the tourist season before they would be fully immunized with two doses of the vaccine.
Campground closures represent one of the biggest impacts that a workforce shortage could have on visitors’ services, particularly in the St. Mary area, where the park is not currently taking reservations. Mow said it’s uncertain whether the St. Mary or Rising Sun campgrounds will open, although reservations are being accepted at Apgar and Fish Creek campgrounds.
It also remains unclear whether the park’s eastern border running along the Blackfeet Indian Reservation will reopen in 2021, a development that would help alleviate congestion levels in West Glacier, which operated as a one-way-in, one-way-out venue for the first time in park history. And officials are still trying to determine how its public transit system inside the park will function less than a year after the popular shuttle system was taken off line completely due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
“That’s still a big question mark right now. We are hoping to have a shuttle system, but they will run at half-capacity unless something dramatic changes [with COVID-19],” Mow said.
Finally, anyone visiting a national park this summer will have to wear a mask following President Joe Biden’s executive order requiring everyone to wear face coverings in federal buildings and on federal land to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“Last year there was no federal mask mandate inside the park and this year there will be,” Mow said. “The National Park Service is going to work out how that is implemented in an outdoor setting. But if you are in a federal building, you will be required to have a face covering.”
Glacier National Park also experienced record-breaking late-season visitation in 2020, with overall visitation up 63% in October, 46% in November and 86% in December — visitation patterns that are not the norm, Mow said, before adding: “But who knows if they are the new normal.”
“The bottom line is, there will be some hangover from 2020, and there will be some limitations on services,” he said.
That hangover will be exacerbated by a months-long pavement preservation project spanning a 40-mile segment of U.S. Highway 2 from Hungry Horse to Essex, which serves as the park’s key exterior artery. In recent years, as visitation surges, it has become a prominent pinch-point for traffic entering and exiting at West Glacier, as well as for motorists circumnavigating the park’s boundary to access other entrances at Two Medicine, East Glacier and Many Glacier.
On a bright note, a two-year construction project that began last April on the Many Glacier Road is ahead of schedule due to COVID-19 related closures on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation abutting the park’s eastern border, which allowed crews to work at a higher tempo last summer. And for the first time in more than a decade there are no construction projects slated to occur on the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road, which charts through the heart of Glacier and climbs over the top of Logan Pass on the Continental Divide.
On the other hand, the delays on Highway 2 will rankle visitors to the park even before they’re ushered through its gates.
“This one is a biggie for 2021,” Mow said. “This would be a big project even in a normal year, especially with the amount of congestion we have.”
Anticipating the impact that such an intensive construction project will have on gateway businesses that depend on Glacier visitation for their lifeblood, park officials have partnered with the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) and Big Sky Public Relations to develop a communication strategy for visitors’ bureaus and chambers of commerce, as well as to hone messaging that targets spontaneous visitors and local residents alike.
Bob Vosen, MDT’s District 1 Administrator, said the pavement preservation project was still out for bid with contractors, but he predicted it would consume the entire summer season, with construction work beginning in May and running into October, often occurring six days a week, 24 hours a day at various points along the stretch of highway girding Glacier’s southern boundary.
“This is going to impact the greater summer season, starting basically as soon as the pavement allows us to get out there,” Vosen said on the Jan. 29 call with stakeholders. “MDT does recognize the impacts and the challenges this will present, which is why we have teamed up with Big Sky Public Relations. We fully recognize the challenges in front of us.”
Amy Aiello, an account executive with Kalispell-based Big Sky Public Relations, said she’ll work with local business and tourism leaders on outreach strategies to inform visitors, while Vosen said MDT will facilitate SMS and email message alerts to provide real-time updates.
“We have been working on a really robust public involvement strategy, but the biggest aspect is going to be stakeholder outreach, which is really important to help manage visitors’ expectations,” Aiello said on Friday’s call.
The construction project can’t be delayed or rescheduled to occur during the shoulder season, as some business leaders urged, due to the manner in which federal funding is allocated and how such projects are sequenced, Mow said, while much of the construction work and the materials require warm weather.
Moreover, Vosen said the stretch of Highway 2 slated for pavement preservation likely wouldn’t survive another winter in its current state, and if left to languish would require a full rebuild by 2022, an effort that would take years.
“If we don’t get this done, we are running a real risk that we could get bumped into the next construction category, which means a total overlay and full rebuild,” Vosen said. “If we had to do that we’d be looking at five to six years in a row of construction on this stretch of road. I doubt anyone wants that.”
Although Mow was candid about the extent of the challenges ahead, he said Glacier is better equipped to deal with the circumstances after the “summer like no other” that 2020 delivered.
“We are so far ahead of where we were in 2020 just in terms of having time in front of us to meet some of the challenges and identifying things that we need to be thinking about,” Mow said. “We have got time to organize work groups and engage as a community, so we can overcome some of the challenges of what I think is going to be another challenging summer.”