Like I Was Saying

Recreation Regulations

Our growth in both population and tourism is now impacting how we enjoy our most valuable asset

By Kellyn Brown

Just about everyone I talk to is expecting a busy summer. Builders, mortgage brokers, service workers, you name it. The valley is bracing to be overrun by tourists beginning in June.

And, if you trust the early indicators, such as hotel bookings and backcountry permit applications, it means many of our most popular attractions will be crowded during what I consider our three best months of the year.

That’s especially true for Glacier National Park, which last week revealed it would implement a ticketed entry system for motorists entering the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor for the first time this summer. The move is in anticipation of record visitation in 2021.

The question is why. Well, I have some theories.

For one, there are simply more people who live here. We won’t have solid estimates until the official U.S. Census is released later this year, but I would guess we’ve added at least a few thousand to Flathead County’s population since the pandemic began. And I think most of those arriving are especially outdoorsy. If you’re using COVID-19 as an excuse to relocate from the hustle and bustle of the city, why move here to stay indoors?

Second, if the last year taught Americans anything it’s a renewed appreciation for open spaces. And we have lots of those. From the park to the Bob Marshall Wilderness to Flathead Lake, there are big swaths of public land in every direction. While coronavirus numbers continue to ebb, many will still be tentative of crowds this summer. They will instead opt for more roomy vacations, like those they can take in our backyard.

Finally, vacation options are still relatively limited. Several countries are still closed to travelers and may not reopen for several months. For instance, France just announced another month-long nationwide lockdown as it struggles to roll out vaccines along with much of Europe. The border with Canada isn’t close to reopening since only a tiny portion of its residents are inoculated.

For a second summer in a row, more Americans will choose to explore America. And for better or worse, it’s about to get busy. Along with having to get a ticket to drive the Sun Road, expect increased traffic on our highways, waterways and trails. It will take more patience and planning to recreate, whereas before we could just head outside to almost anywhere on a whim.

There will be those who criticize Glacier’s decision to require reservations to enjoy some of its most stunning vistas, but there really was no other alternative. On multiple occasions last year traffic from the park’s west side backed up all the way to Highway 2, snarling traffic for miles. Either manage the throngs of visitors and locals alike so those who enter have an enjoyable experience or risk making it miserable for everyone by doing nothing.

Unfortunately, for those of us who have lived here for years, more management systems may be in the queue. There have been murmurings about requiring a permit to float the North Fork Flathead River as the number of rafters has continued to increase. Whether that happens, it’s clear our growth in both population and tourism is now impacting how we enjoy our most valuable asset. And we can expect more recreation regulations.

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