A decade ago, as former Glacier National Park Superintendent Chas Cartwright’s lifelong career in public service drew to an official close, he described his role as a “temporary guardian” of the continent’s crown jewel — a pro tem steward of a precious resource he hoped would endure long enough for future generations to enjoy, but which he said required champions to protect.
On Sept. 24, when Cartwright died at the age of 72 following an extended battle with health issues, he’d extended his tenure as Glacier’s “temporary” caretaker by another dozen years, continuing to advocate on the park’s behalf with his characteristic grit and hardheaded pragmatism.
In his four-and-a-half years as superintendent, Cartwright squared off against a host of complex issues, including the pressures of rising visitation and congestion, the reconstruction of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the protection of natural resources, the threat of invasive species, and the imposing weight of Canadian coal and gold mining interests in the Flathead River Basin.
Charged with striking a balance between preservation and use, Cartwright took on each problem with the park’s best interests in mind, his decisions informed only by his love for the “people and the place,” he said, and not for the sake of leaving behind a personal legacy.
Unlike many administrators, he experienced much of the park’s 1 million acres of wilderness and wildlife habitat firsthand, hiking nearly all of its 734 miles of trail and climbing its highest peaks whenever possible.
Michael Jamison, of the National Parks Conservation Association, regularly joined Cartwright on these excursions, which the two friends and colleagues dubbed “our Wednesday walks” — although more often than not they involved crab-walking on all fours up and down Glacier’s steep and sedimentary expanses of rock.
“He was the muddy boots superintendent of Glacier Park,” Jamison said. “We’d run into tourists out on our hikes and he wouldn’t reveal who he was. He’d just ask them about their experience as a visitor to Glacier. He was out there gathering string and figuring out what works. He was learning how to protect the resource and protect people’s interests. But he was also learning what was at stake. Not a lot of superintendents did that. I think those Wednesday walks shaped him. They drove the way he managed, which was from the ground up.”
Cartwright’s resume spanned more than 40 years of federal service, the last 26 years with the National Park Service, and included five prior superintendent-ships. Upon his appointment as the top brass at Glacier in 2008, he was charged with overseeing nearly 450 permanent and seasonal employees, and was responsible for an annual budget of nearly $14 million.
In 2010, the park’s centennial year, a record-setting 2.2 million visitors passed through Glacier’s gates. Meanwhile, Cartwright was overseeing one of the biggest reconstruction efforts on the iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road while seeking federal wilderness status for the park.
The wilderness designation was stymied in Congress, a major disappointment to Cartwright; however, undeterred by the bureaucratic stumbling block, he soon helped usher in another permanent safeguard.
In 2010, Montana and British Columbia officials signed an agreement that made the Flathead River Basin off limits from energy and mineral mining. For three decades, the North Fork of the Flathead River, which forms Glacier’s western border, had faced pressure from Canadian coal and gold mining interests. Such development would have put Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park’s status as a World Heritage Site at risk, and helped persuade B.C.’s Parliament to take mining off the table.
“I look at successes in the park, and they have all been a ‘we’ thing, not a ‘me’ thing,” Cartwright said at the time. “That win on the transboundary Flathead is a good example. It required Montana and B.C. to reach a memorandum of understanding. Nonprofits and scientists and land managers on both sides of the border played key roles. But that was the biggest success that I have ever been involved in during my career.”
The multiyear, $170 million overhaul of the Sun Road, begun in 2006, was still an estimated five years away from completion at the time of Cartwright’s retirement. Since its completion, visitation has continued to swell, straining the park’s infrastructure and carrying capacity. Without the reconstruction project, the road would certainly be in grave disrepair today.
Cartwright didn’t mince words about the negative impacts of increasing visitation to natural resources across the park, particularly along the Highline Trail and trails near Logan Pass, Cartwright said.
“I think it’s safe to say that we have issues. The status quo of what we’re doing now, we’ve got to do better,” he told the Beacon in 2012. “How can we incrementally change how we manage that corridor and the facilities up and down that corridor so that we do a better job of serving visitors and protecting resources?”
Likewise, he was honest about how the National Park Service’s shrinking budget would diminish resource management and affect the visitor-use experience.
“I think for a long time the National Park Service had seen diminishing budgets and a lot of the superintendents prior to Chas managed to put a pretty good face on that,” Jamison said. “There was a lot of talk about doing more with less. And Chas was just brutally honest that we were going to do less with less. He was not going to spin it.”
Although Cartwright remained close to Glacier’s doorstep after retiring, living in Columbia Falls, he died in Cortez, Colorado. He is survived by his wife, Lynda Stocks, his son John Visser (Sara) and daughter Monique McDermott (Patrick), six grandchildren [Tyson, Jordan (Sydney), Logan (Sierra), Sydney (Ethan), Jackson and London, and by two great-granddaughters, Sloane and Shiloh. He is also survived by his sister, Lynn Cartwright, and his uncle, Bill Cartwright (Sandy).
A celebration of life with his family will happen at a future date not yet determined.
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