The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council (BTBC) on Wednesday unanimously voted to allow the eastern entrance of Glacier National Park to reopen for the 2021 visitor season, attributing the decision to a vaccination rate approaching 95% among eligible tribal members and the recent adoption of a new set of guidelines for reopening the reservation’s economy.
The 9-0 vote comes just over a year after tribal leaders declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a grim milestone that members of the Blackfeet community observed on March 15 by paying respects to the 47 tribal members who have died as a result of the virus, as well as by celebrating the lives saved due to the aggressive steps that Blackfeet officials took to protect the reservation’s most vulnerable residents.
“Here we are one year later, and we’re here, which is worth celebrating,” BTBC Chairman Tim Davis said during the one-year commemoration. “We recognize all those that we have lost, all of our loved ones. Every one of us has a connection with someone who died. We all want to get back to normal, but the new normal is not going to be normal. It’s going to take time and we need to continue to be vigilant.”
Inside the reservation, that vigilance has been on prominent display through restrictions that have far outweighed those required either by Montana’s statewide mandate or by local decree, and will continue to include masking requirements “for an indefinite period of time,” according to James McNeely, a tribal public information officer.
But the ordinance with the highest consequence beyond the reservation’s boundary was the tribal council’s decision to block access to Glacier’s eastern entrances, including at Two Medicine, Chief Mountain, St. Mary, Cut Bank Creek, and Many Glacier. Because Glacier National Park draws millions of visitors each year, with hundreds of thousands of them accessing the park by crossing tribal lands, the potential for tourism to exacerbate the public-health crisis during the pandemic presented an unacceptable risk, tribal leaders said.
Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow immediately endorsed the Blackfeet Nation’s decision to maintain the closures last year, and has been uncompromising in his stance that a decision to reopen the eastern entrances in 2021 would only be arrived at with the Tribe’s concurrence.
Following the BTBC’s vote on Wednesday, the park will move forward with reopening its eastern entrances beginning March 18, even though summer tourism season doesn’t kick off until June and the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the park’s only thoroughfare, remains buried in snow. The entrance at Many Glacier, the second-most popular east-side entrance next to St. Mary, will remain closed to motorized traffic until May 28 due to road constructions on the Many Glacier Road, which began March 15. Access to hikers, bikers, skiers and snowshoers is also off limits during that timeframe on weekdays.
Still, access to the east side of the park will reopen at Two Medicine, Cut Bank and St. Mary for foot traffic, skis and snowshoes.
The entrance at St. Mary will allow vehicle traffic on Going-to-the-Sun Road for 1.5 miles until the winter gate closure at St. Mary Campground. Access past the gate is allowed by foot, skiing and snowshoeing as is typical of normal winter seasons. The St. Mary Campground remains closed to winter camping until further notice.
The roads into Cut Bank and Two Medicine remain closed to vehicle traffic for the winter, but access by foot, skiing and snowshoeing will once again be available past the gates, as is typical of normal winter seasons.
Visitors are reminded that winter conditions are unpredictable and can quickly become dangerous. Visitors should prepare for icy conditions, high winds, and snow. Cellular communications in the park are extremely limited.
Even if the reopening won’t be met by immediate fanfare, it’s helpful for planning and business purposes to have made the decision sooner than later, Mow said.
“This time of year, most of the use that takes place in the park is locals skiing in behind the gate, or snowshoeing in, so if we were to open the gates really it just means taking the ‘park closed’ sign off of the gates, which will remain shut,” Mow said last week during a meeting of business stakeholders on the park’s east side. “But certainly there is a benefit to opening the park sooner rather than waiting until we have a large amount of visitors coming into the park.”
Based upon the increased availability of COVID-19 vaccines, which as of March 15 the Blackfeet Nation had made available to “anyone and everyone,” the Tribe has moved to Phase 3 of its COVID-19 Phased Plan, permitting further openings of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation’s business community.
Although Phase 3 does not lift masking requirements and maintains other public health guidelines, including an 11 p.m. curfew for anyone under the age of 18, it allows residents to recreate freely, signaling a dramatic departure from Phase 2 of the Tribe’s reopening protocol, which prohibited all unapproved gatherings and limited interactions outside private households while imposing a penalty structure of up to $5,000 in fines for anyone who violated quarantine or isolation orders.
“With the move to Phase 3 as well as consultation with medical authorities and the high rate of vaccination on the Blackfeet Reservation, the Council felt that it was time to allow the east entrance to open,” McNeely said regarding Wednesday’s decision.
“The safety of the Blackfeet People remains the top priority of the Council, who will continue to work with Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow, area business owners, and local health officials. Masks will be required for an indefinite period of time, possibly the next couple of years,” McNeely added. “Also, proper hand hygiene and social distancing are still highly recommended along with regular testing.”
As March 17, tribal leaders report that 6,693 of the approximately 7,000 tribal members eligible for a vaccine have received one, according to Southern Piegan Clinic and Blackfeet Community Hospital.
Any eligible individuals who have not received their vaccination are encouraged to do so by contacting the Southern Piegan Clinic or Blackfeet Community Hospital.