Many Glacier Hotel. Beacon file photo
Glacier Park

East Side Access to Glacier Park Hinges on Tribal Consensus

Without an east-side opening date, businesses encounter 'crippling' challenges planning for summer tourism season

By Tristan Scott

Public access to Glacier National Park’s east entrances has been prohibited since last March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with tribal, state, local, and federal officials reaching a consensus to maintain the closure even after other areas of the park reopened in order to safeguard vulnerable members of the Blackfeet Nation.

That same spirit of consensus will inform when, if and how the famed park’s eastern boundary reopens prior to this summer, according to park officials. And while public health experts from the National Park Service, Glacier County, the state of Montana, the Indian Health Service, and the Blackfeet Tribe have developed a “workgroup” to identify health and safety benchmarks that, once reached, would allow for a safe reopening, the mood is tense among gateway hospitality businesses who depend on visitation to the park’s eastern entrances as their livelihood.

“The strain is pretty intense. Financially, situations don’t get much worse than this for a business, and our business is our home as well as our livelihood,” said Sanford Stone, whose family owns Park Cabin Co., a hospitality and lodging business in Babb, situated on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

Nearly a year after the initial closure, Stone says the strain is compounded because a question mark still lingers over whether visitors will be allowed to access Glacier through its eastern entrances in 2021, even as park officials offer vague assurances, saying they are coordinating closely with the BTBC, as well as with state, local and federal partners in an effort to set certain public-health benchmarks. 

“But it’s the mental and emotional strain of having no idea of how this is going to work moving forward that is really crippling,” Stone said.

Stone, who is not an enrolled tribal member, has been coordinating with tribal and non-tribal business owners for the past year in order to facilitate an open dialogue between the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council (BTBC), local and state governments, the park, and small business owners, in part to gain a better understanding of the circumstances needed to set a reopening date. So far, he’s had little success.

“We’ve been pleading with the tribal, county, state, and federal governments for almost a year, not because we want to dictate that the park is reopened, but for a plan for how that can safely be accomplished,” Stone said. “And we don’t know any more than we did last March.”

The Blackfeet Tribe’s health needs are unique during this deadly pandemic due in part to the vulnerability of its elders who, in addition to serving as the gatekeepers of Blackfeet culture, are also the most at risk of contracting and suffering fatal complications from the disease.

That vulnerability is 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 wasn’t lost on park administrators who agreed to enforce the closure, nor did it escape members of the gateway communities whose economic vitality is linked to seasonal visitation.

“We are not writing to demand the Park open, nor to contradict the Tribe’s coronavirus directives,” a consortium of hospitality and tourism businesses on the east side of Glacier Park stated in a letter to former Gov. Steve Bullock last July, in a plea for relief. “We are in a different situation than any other group of businesses in the state. We appreciate your full support of the tribe’s measures to protect the residents of the Blackfeet Reservation, and hope that you will also fully support the businesses that bear the direct economic weight of those decisions. The east side closure directly impacts our ability to make an income, pay our bills, and raise our families.”

Park officials say they understand and sympathize with the dire situation, but continue to ask for the patience of small business owners.

“We have heard loud and clear the degree of economic impact having the east side closed has on local businesses,” Glacier Park Superintendent Jeff Mow told the business owners in a virtual stakeholder meeting last month.

Mow said he hopes the workgroup will have a draft plan for discussion with the BTBC at its upcoming March meeting.

And while Mow has emphasized that reopening is a shared goal, he’s also made it clear that striking a consensus between all those partners, and receiving the tribe’s blessing, is a requisite for reaching it. 

“In reopening the remaining areas of Glacier National Park, the concurrence of the original entities will be required,” Mow told business owners and stakeholders earlier this month.

To achieve the shared goal, officials with the park and tribe have formed a workgroup to identify “measures and mitigations” that should be in place at the start of the visitor season in order for the park’s eastern boundary to open, including an acceptable vaccination and infection rate.

“Both the tribal council and the park continue to plan for the east side of the park to be open pending appropriate public health measures and implementation of mitigations to be determined by the workgroup,” according to a statement park officials sent to participants in last month’s stakeholder meetings.

The park’s cooperation has come as a relief to Blackfeet leaders now entering their 12th month of pandemic-response measures, and who on Feb. 16 reported the 47th death of a tribal member as a result of COVID-19. As of Feb. 22, Glacier County, where the reservation is located, reported 16 active cases of the disease, while Blackfeet COVID-19 Incident Command updated its dashboard to reflect 17 active cases, adding one new case.

Even before COVID-19 was reported on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, the tribe acted aggressively, closing schools, restricting businesses and canceling ceremonial events like powwows, and tribal leaders say that without those proactive measures the death toll could have been much higher.

As the tribe and the park work toward reopening the east side, businesses closest to the park’s eastern entrances in St. Mary, Many Glacier, Two Medicine, East Glacier, Two Medicine, Babb, and Browning are still reeling from last summer’s financial losses, and say they have a disproportionate amount of interest at stake in the upcoming summer season.

Although the BTBC doesn’t have the authority to close Glacier National Park’s eastern entrances, the park agreed to do so “as good neighbors,” Mow said, and in the interest of public safety.

Still, business owners without a clear idea of what needs to happen in order for the park’s east entrances to reopen don’t feel that the neighborly will is being reciprocated by the tribal government.

In addition to the uncertainty surrounding a date for lifting the east-side closure, one lingering challenge identified by businesses operating on the reservation is the BTBC’s recently amended Business Regulation Order, which requires lodging facilities to cancel “all tourist reservations related to vacationing or recreating” for the duration of the order. The order has hamstrung some lodging businesses’ ability to plan for the upcoming season, multiple hoteliers said, adding another layer of uncertainty on top of not having an official opening date.

Lodging facilities are also required to maintain a 72-hour period of vacancy in rooms between occupants, with deep cleaning occurring during the period, which requires unsustainable latency periods.

“As you can imagine, we are all really struggling to confidently hire and make the large financial investments required to reopen when we have no specific information to go off of,” Claire Stone, who co-owns Park Cabin Co., wrote in an email requesting guidance from Glacier Country Tourism. 

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